This may seem odd, considering the main character played by Jack Nicholson is a diagnosed obsessive-compulsive with an almost Tourette Syndrome lack of ability to censor what he says about anyone not like him. You haven’t heard this much bigotry-tinged dialogue in a long time.
And it may still seem odd once an audience is twenty minutes into this film and they’re sensing an almost uncomfortable comedic rhythm…but it all starts to affect you, growing on you until you are in hysterics (there was one line that made me laugh harder than I have in months).
As Good As It Gets is a film about what it is like to be completely uncomfortable in your own skin. Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, a successful novelist who has to live a regimented life because of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Everything he does requires long, involved patterns to keep him close to feeling comfortable or safe, whether it’s the way he makes sure his apartment door is locked or the way he avoids every single sidewalk crack in New York City.
Udall’s condition dominates the look and feel of this film. This means that he even affects how the movie is shot, with tight, awkward camera angles early on. We see a lot of small details – like just the legs of several people as Udall barges through a crowd – but the camera feels constricted in how it moves, as does he.
Adding to this is a violin, the musical signature that composer Hans Zimmer provides for Melvin. The violin in the film’s underscore has this scratchy, insistent feel to it, a good comment on what has to be this churning going on inside Udall all the time (even during the romantic moments).
Co-writer and director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News) gets more mileage out of all of this than you’d expect; he, his cast members, his composer and his cameraman are being creative (Brooks and the actors did a lot of improvising on this film).
So. As we know from the very first scene, Udall is not a happy man. Here we do experience one of the more typical things in this film: we know that other people will bring out this man’s basic humanity and goodness so that he’s no longer such a jerk by the end (the film’s look loosens up as Udall loosens up). We’ve seen that before. What we haven’t seen too much of before is how Udall changes: he does it in a way that keeps the others uncomfortable and edgy…
Everyone adds their own pleasures. Helen Hunt is gorgeous and willful as the waitress who Udall insists always serves him; Greg Kinnear plays an artist with a toxic relationship with the novelist; and Cuba Gooding, Jr. is the first character to stand up to Udall. Plus there’s this amazing dog who really seems to act. As Good As It Gets is brutal and gentle all at the same time, and this turns out to be charming…and very funny.