Skip to main content

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets
(1997)

(SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

Brooks’ conceit is of cantankerous OCD misanthrope – and author of romantic fiction – Melvin Udall (Nicholson) being racist, homophobic, sexist, you name it, but not really. Underneath it all, he’s a good egg who loves animals, people of any race or persuasion, and even cares for sickeningly sick kids. He’s just awkward, y’know. Cast a less magnetic personality in this part and you have a complete turn off. Even with Nicholson, you’re left seriously doubting the sanity of Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) in inviting Melvin into her life and are under no illusion this relationship doesn’t stand a hope in hell of lasting.

One of As Good as it Gets’ problems is that we’re asked to invest in Melvin and Carol as if they’re real people, but nothing about Brooks confection conveys that. Even the sneering is saccharine, because it’s delivered knowing Melvin is a diamond deep down; As Good as It Gets is so loaded in favour of Jack changing, there’s no bite to anything Melvin does. And there’s the way the lines are all precision-designed for ad clips and Oscar campaigns, surely the secret of its success (beyond its star turn).

I suppose you could forward the idea that there’d be no studio appetite to make this movie today (however one might characterise the current last vestiges of civilisation as we know it). In an age of once-and-always-cancelled wokesterism, Melvin might get away with dropping cute ickle pug Verdell down the laundry chute, but there’s no way he’d measure up for forgiveness calling Simon (Gregg Kinnear) a “fudgepacker”, one intent on pulling “the stiff one eye on me”, insulting Jewish diners (“Appetites aren’t as big as your noses, huh?’) or furnishing the (nicked from John Updike) response regarding how he writes women so well (“I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability”).

I don’t think such a “daring” assessment would be especially to As Good as it Gets’ credit, though. The whole movie is so creakily calculated, perhaps even wokesters would be able to see what it’s doing. Kinnear’s Simon is borderline caricature (he could happily mince his way through The Birdcage remake). He’s a good actor – his Jack impression is first rate – but Simon’s a thoroughly thankless victim role, and it might have need someone like (thoroughly cancelled) first choice Geoffrey Rush to milk actual pathos from him.

One might make also make the argument that Melvin is himself afflicted, with allusions to his own troubled childhood as a counterbalance to Simon’s, and that he has, like a good and decent American, started taking his meds. As Good as it Gets is grotesquely in favour of allopathic chicanery and psychiatric voodoo. All it takes for little Spence (Jesse James) to get back on his feet and start scoring at football is switching to a decent doctor (that, and someone who can afford a decent doctor). One who’ll prescribe the right pharmaceuticals. You know, rather than Carol taking responsibility as a parent and making hard choices. Like not living in a polluted city or stuffing your kid full of toxins.

Little of the movie’s emotional “weight” carries sufficient substance to be other than dead weight between Jack scenes. Helen Hunt – 24 years younger than Jack; Shirley Knight is a year older than Nicholson as Carol’s mum – does a decent job of playing Mevlin’s foil, but the devoted waitress mother of an impossibly wretched moppet is a cliché beyond belief. Brooks attempts shameless manipulation of the sort that actively distracts from feeling anything, be it Greg telling us what happened with his parents or the ultra-cornball “You make me want to be a better man” scene. Indeed, it’s a skin-crawling remark, one probably appropriated by wife beaters everywhere over the decades since.

Cuba Gooding Jr is in the mix, having become a parody of himself in the space of a year, but I guess at least his agent was showing him the money back then (now, of course: cancelled). There are also brief roles for performers I had no memory of being there – perhaps because they weren’t very well known when I first saw it – such as Skeet Ulrich, Jamie Kennedy, Wood Harris and Julie Benz. Writer-directors appear in cameos, including Harold Ramis, Lawrence Kasdan and Shane Black (the former two as doctors, the latter telling Melvin to get out of the café).

As Good as it Gets was nominated for seven Oscars, scoring for Jack and Helen. Neither made much capital from the wins; Jack was beginning to wind down, and only really About Schmidt stood out during his final decade (and a bit) of a movies. Hunt took a couple of years off and never really convinced anyone that she was at home on the big screen (at any rate, she seems to have been more engaged by directing than acting over the past two decades).

The picture was originally titled Old Friends, and maybe it would have ended up another I’ll Do Anything or How Do You Know under that title. Not that As Good as it Gets is exactly a keeper, but it has a trace of energy to it. Old Friends is a limp lettuce. As Good as it Gets goes down easily thanks to Jack and a filmmaker dedicated to serving the people what they think they want, but it’s more by default that it’s more deserving of that year’s Best Picture than the winner. It certainly isn’t in the same league as the real should-have-been L.A. Confidential.


Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.