June 26, 2011

Queer Review: As Good As It Gets (1997)

As Good As It Gets
Director: James L. Brooks
Writer: Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Shirley Knight, Jesse James

As Good As It Gets was critically lauded at the time of it's release and features some outstanding acting from it's main cast. Unfortunately there are too many elements, characters, and plot points, that are either gently recycled or outright stolen. With only a few major differences, this is a modern day version of A Christmas Carol.

Romance author Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is about as unpleasant and nasty an individual as one can be without being a serial killer or Hitler. When his neighbor's dog annoys him, he shoves the pup down a garbage chute. Melvin has only one restaurant that he can eat at (probably because all of the others in his neighborhood banned him) where he can only be served by Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt). Carol's son Spencer (Jesse James) is extremely ill and being a waitress, she does not have the money to ensure that he receives proper medical treatment. Meanwhile, Melvin's neighbor Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), a gay painter/artist, is facing eviction and mounting financial problems after he was robbed and beaten by street hoodlums.

The Queering
The A Christmas Carol parallels are plenty. Melvin is a modern day Scrooge, whose change of heart comes not from ghosts of Christmas, but from dog sitting Simon's pooch while he's in the hospital. The Tiny Tim role is fulfilled by Simon and Spencer, with the former even being given a cane to use. One significant change comes from Carol filling the Bob Crotchit role, thereby providing an opportunity for a romance between her and her Scrooge like customer.

Had As Good As It Gets been made when the national healthcare bill was being debated, it would have been branded as liberal propaganda as both Carol's and Simon's problems stem from inadequate access to healthcare. While there is no political agenda being pushed, there is certainly something eerie watching how easily the characters would go away if they simply had medical insurance. Maybe someday audiences will look back on this film and be able to view the central problem as a historical artifact, or maybe not. Who knows?

Overall, As Good As It Gets is well made. There is not a weak performance to be found. Jack Nicholson in particular takes relish in delivering some of the more biting lines of dialogue offered up by screenplay. However, my favorite line is when Carol goes on a rant about wanting a normal boyfriend, her mother interrupts her with, "We all do. Unfortunately those don't exist."

The problem is that the good points are all counterbalanced by an overabundance of stereotypes and familiar tropes. I knew from the beginning the trajectory of every character arc and exactly hoe everything was going to end. Greg Kinnear's character in particular stands out, as Simon is the overly feminine gay artist type. While Kinnear's performance is otherwise fine, the only thing I was grateful for was that Simon was not an English teacher.

In the end, I have to say that while I did not hate Director James L. Brooks film or anything, the overly conventional plot and lack of surprises makes it a hard film to recommend. For those that do not mind a lack of originality, this may be worth seeking out. For those looking for a movie that treads new ground and pushes the proverbial envelope, look elsewhere.

The Rating


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