After days of preparation, South Florida was hit with an ankle-breaker from Hurricane Dorian that has left us dry but ultimately ticked off for wasting our time. But in that wasted time, my family and I had a movie night where we watched one of the most revered films from 1997: “As Good as It Gets”. The general rule of life is that anything with Jack Nicholson in it is worth a watch, but let me tell you, there is no better way to watch a quirky comedy that is 20 years out of date than having a few glasses of whiskey and being cooped up in a boarded-up house with no sunlight. So, with that in mind, let’s see how this one holds up.
My initial reaction was: It was alright, I guess. The film has a reputation the precedes it as a 2-Time Oscar-Winner, and maybe I was expecting something truly amazing when it was only just pretty good. Whether or not it is fair to judge a film because it does or does not meet initial expectations is a debate that is worth having but ultimately, I couldn’t separate that factor from my feelings of the film. I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed at a few aspects of the film that are somehow toted as the film’s high points, but I believe that even if I didn’t have my expectations prior, I would likely still have these criticisms.
The story feels forced in some areas. I thought he first half of the film worked much more cohesively than the second half because the latter seemed to be forced to try to conform to the more cliché aspects of storytelling. Jack Nicholson’s Melvin in the first half was great. He was an abrasive asshole who hid from the responsibility of his own actions behind his OCD. He seemed to convince himself that he can’t improve himself as a person so there was no need to even try to be good to anyone else. He was racist, sexist, homophobic, and pretty much every other bad trait you can think of. Similarly, Helen Hunt’s Carol and Greg Kinnear’s Simon were equally interesting in the first half of the film. Carol was the only character that didn’t seem to be afraid of Melvin’s antics and Simon was a gay artist who was beaten a robbed to an inch of his life. But when the film takes the three of them on a road trip to Maryland, everybody except Simon seems to grow illogically.
In the first half of the story, Melvin and Carol had a nice back and forth, but there was ZERO sexual tension or romantic chemistry between them. And yet, the trip to Maryland shows that somehow, they’ve always had romantic feelings for each other. Maybe it is because Melvin is Jack Nicholson who hasn’t looked younger than 55 since he starred in “Chinatown” 20 years earlier, but I just do not believe Carol has ever found this man even remotely attractive in any way. Melvin has always been exceptionally rude to her, and even after he pays for her son’s medical treatment, she still says she would never have sex with him. That works in tandem with the fact that Melvin didn’t do what he did out of the kindness of his heart or to impress her. He wanted her back at work so she could go back to being his waitress and he could go back to his routine. It was a selfish, pragmatic motivation from an older, mentally unstable man, who continues to show how unstable he is after that moment. It would have made much more sense storytelling-wise if she developed sympathy for his situation and became a supportive figure as a platonic friend, but the romance just seemed very forced.
Carol was initially portrayed as fiercely independent, showing the willingness to stand up to Melvin when virtually no one else had the backbone to look him in the eye. Yes, she was looking for love, which included one very creepy date with a guy who didn’t talk but did make large physical advances and had those serial killer wire glasses (you know the ones I am talking about) and blank stare that makes you wonder why she didn’t just call the cops immediately. However, her quest for partnership was played as almost a form of desperation and I think it devalues her strength that despite her ability to call Melvin out, she still ends up with him romantically. You could say she loves him despite his flaws but it really felt as though she was willingly entering a bad relationship because she just couldn’t walk away. It is why I think a friendship with Melvin is more appropriate than a romantic relationship that is doomed to fail. If Melvin was given the opportunity to grow as a person in the film, it is a shame that they didn’t afford Carol the same opportunity, and instead gave her the cliché “Love is where you least expect it” routine.
Much more positively, Simon is a great character who’s arc actually makes sense to me. Like I said before, he is an artist who was robbed and beaten, but those physical actions affect his character immensely. He goes from being a creative man trying to live his best life to being someone resentful and bitter. This is a reasonable and natural reaction as everything he had was taken from him and his only perceivable way out is turning to his abrasive homophobic neighbor to watch his dog and drive him to Maryland to beg his parents for money even though they wouldn’t call or visit him and abandoned him years back because he was gay. Yup, not an ideal situation. Yet, on the trip, Carol helps him rediscover the beauty in life and regain his passion for art and living again. He calls his parents and tells them that he doesn’t need them and seems to really have grown from the experience. Frankly, the type of relationship he fosters with Carol should have been what Melvin also has with her. There is no romance, but there is compassion, empathy, and genuine love. It is a shame that this was not the central theme of the film and the three characters could have been 3 friends who understand each other’s struggles and provide the support they were lacking prior. After all, the strongest structure in nature is the triangle.
Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this movie was bad, just overrated. The message seems poorly thought out and it mainly just coasts on the charisma of its cast and the quirkiness of its characters. Much of the film feels a product of its time and perhaps that is why the forced romance was deemed acceptable. When you really think about it, it’s crazy how the 1990s were allowed to happen. Everything was just goofy. But the film does sport quality acting from all of its main cast and the occasional funny moment that isn’t totally derived from uncomfortable awkwardness, so maybe it doesn’t deserve to be judged as harshly as I did. But I give you my honest thoughts and there they were.
I give “As Good as It Gets” an adequate 6.8 out of 10
Directed by: James L. Brooks
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich
Runtime: 2 Hours and 19 Minutes