Screwball comedies were one of Hollywood's most successful genres in the 1930s and '40s. Classics such as Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday got their laughs from the antics of offbeat men and women who pursued improbable romances in improbable circumstances. The fast-paced dialogue was noted for its clever plays on words and memorable one-liners. Last year's summer hit, My Best Friend's Wedding, recreated the magic of these golden oldies in a modern setting, adding to the mix an imaginative use of Burt Bacharach's love songs to get you to root for its characters.
The recently released As Good As It Gets stretches the genre even further. With characters that seem to have wandered in from John Cassavetes's neo-realistic melodramas such as Faces and A Woman Under the Influence, it's a nitty-gritty, kitchen-sink kind of comedy with none of the high-fashion, high-society sheen of its original counterparts (and most of their contemporary descendants). Writer-director James Brooks (Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News) and co-screenwriter Max Andrus look for humor in messy emotions, psychological pain, and the confusions of everyday living. The loose ends are bound together by well-crafted punch lines, carefully prepared payoffs, and some politically correct attitudes. One's heart goes out to their characters as they learn to make the best of bad situations in the midst of jokes and tears.
Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) may have written 62 best-selling romance novels, but there seems to be no room for love in his own life. He has no friends and repels everyone with whom he comes into contact with a steady stream of insults and profanity. (His profanity may also offend some viewers.) Melvin particularly dislikes Jews, blacks, homosexuals, and household pets. When he catches a neighbor's dog relieving itself in his apartment building's hallway, he tosses the tiny creature into the garbage chute.
Melvin isn't just a nasty, lonely guy. He's afflicted with an unspecified obsessive-compulsive disorder. He doesn't like to be touched and refuses to step on the cracks in the sidewalk. He brings his own plastic spoons and forks whenever he goes out to a restaurant and always orders the same meal. His medicine cabinet is stacked with bars of Neutragena soap, with which he frequently washes his hands and then discards after only one use.
Melvin aims some of his most venomous wisecracks at the dog's owner, Simon Nye (Greg Kinnear), a homosexual artist. When the distraught animal lover knocks on Melvin's door looking for his pet, the writer mocks him.
“Do you like to be interrupted when you're nancying around in your little garden,” he snarls, making fun of the artist's method of working.
Melvin's only human connection is with Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), a waitress who serves him breakfast every morning in an upscale Manhattan eatery. Somehow she is able to tolerate his sadistic sarcasm and persuade him to back down when he goes too far. She lives in Brooklyn with her mother (Shirley Knight) and 7-year-old son, Spencer (Jesse James), who suffers from debilitating asthma attacks. Worry about her son's illness consumes her life, making dating, trips to the park, and other normal things impossible.
Melvin's meticulously controlled world starts to unravel when misfortune strikes his hated neighbor, Simon. Beaten and robbed by one of his models, the artist is forced to spend a long stretch of time in the hospital. His art dealer, Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding Jr.), knows how to manipulate Melvin's neuroses and bullies him into looking after the dog.
The writer is surprised to find he enjoys the experience. He spoils the animal by offering him gourmet food and playing the piano to create the proper mood during feeding time. These simple acts of kindness set off an emotional chain reaction.
When Carol quits her job to spend more time with her ailing son, Melvin pays for an allergy specialist to investigate the boy's medical problems. In return, Carol agrees to resume her waitress work and, once again, serve Melvin breakfast in the restaurant every morning. Sparks begin to fly between the odd couple, and the filmmakers milk this unusual romance for all the yucks they can get.
Mutual affection for the dog provides a bridge between Melvin and Simon, and the writer offers to help the artist with some of his difficulties. In the process, Melvin stops making cruel jokes about Simon's homosexuality. This leads to the writer's acceptance of the gay lifestyle as a permissible alternative to heterosexuality—a popular cause this year with Hollywood's creative community. (Witness tinsel town's universal praise for the outing of the lead character in the television series, Ellen.)
The filmmakers propagate another fashionable notion by sending Melvin to a psychiatrist who seems to mellow him out very quickly. This plug for the instant efficacy of therapy and supervised education allows Brooks and Andrus to indulge their character in some psychobabble, making some of the key confrontational scenes play like portions of a group therapy session.
Nevertheless, despite these nods to the current Hollywood zeitgeist, As Good As it Gets sparkles with originality in its reworking of screwball-comedy conventions. The filmmakers make us see the laughter that can he found in hard times. Sentimentality is sized with sharp-edged psychological insights in just the right proportions, allowing us to identify with Melvin and Carol as they decide to risk the possible pain that can come from forging emotional attachments. The healing of wounded souls is always a joy to watch.
The USCC classification of As Good As It Gets is A-IV: adults, with reservations. The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. For other USCC classifications of recent releases, call 1-800-311-4CCC.
Arts and culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.