Who have thought that Jack Nicholson’s devilish grin would suit the smart comedic and heart-warming charm of James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets? Before 1997, Nicholson’s grin was suited to the sadistic humour of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman reboot. But as with that fine turn, the casting of Nicholson as Melvin Udall is one of genuine genius.
Indeed the evil traits of the Joker and neuroses of his former characters aren’t all that far from our memory when we meet Melvin Udall in the opening act of As Good As It Gets when he throws his neighbour’s dog down the garbage chute in an apartment building. A misanthropic, obsessive-compulsive germ-a-phobe (note: not the technical term) and novelist, Melvin Udall goes on to encounter a series of characters and forms unlikely friendships which throughout the film prove to be a catalyst for his recovery and change of personality. It all begins when Melvin is enlisted to help his gay artist neighbour (who has been brutally attack in an attempted robbery) by looking after his dog- forcing him to confront his crass homophobia and his irritation of animals.
Furthermore, one of the few stable ‘friendships’ (if at the start of the film we can dare to call them that) in his life is with the waitress at his regular eating place (with his own plastic cutlery) called Carol played by Helen Hunt. Her own story becomes clear as we learn that her young son suffers from acute asthma and is as much a debilitating victim of the illness as of a poor health insurance policy. Melvin becomes fond of Carol and her ability to kerb his grouchiness with finesse, and when events transpire that Melvin’s daily routine which has allowed him to settle into a life of cantankerous behaviour is disrupted, Melvin sets out to fix it- insulting and surprising a lot of people along the way.
Despite all the signs which indicate that Nicholson’s character is bound to be dislikeable to watch, the sharpness of the script written by Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks turn this film from two hours of the grumbles of a matured man stuck in his ways into a cinematic gem of a similar kind which made actors like Walter Matthau so enjoyable despite their character’s obvious flaws. Brooks clearly knew how to direct and write for Nicholson (having worked together previously on Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment)- every line seems to have been meant for Nicholson to utter and have all the snarling style that fits the timbre of Nicholson’s voice and technique. One also cannot forget Helen Hunt as Carol who becomes Melvin’s human element and the driving force behind the decision to change his life. Hunt and Nicholson are equal sparring partners on screen, and though some critics have seen the journey of their relationship as being overly sentimental towards the end of the film, I think it a fitting end to a film which at least to some extent alludes to optimism from the outset- the movie posters after all graces a hopeful Nicholson smiling towards to the sky. Both actors won Best Actor and Best Actress at the Academy Awards, and deservedly so. Greg Kinnear (who plays Simon, Udall’s neighbour in need) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and his character gets a significant amount of screen time in order for us as viewers to fully comprehend his character’s plight and own eventual emotional salvation during the course of the film. A scene in which Simon learns of his near-bankruptcy from his friend who has to use prompt cards in order stop herself from crying is particularly heart-breaking.
During his acceptance speech at his AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony in 1994 Nicholson ended what was already a rapturous evening with the words: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”. Three years later he would win third Academy Award for this film and go on to become the second most nominated actor of all time. As Good As It Gets is a film with a star still at the top of his game. And he knew it.