Oscar-winner for Best Actor (Jack Nicholson) and Best Actress (Helen Hunt)
It’s tough to pin down exactly represents a typical James L. Brooks film, given he’s only directed 6 movies since 1983, beginning with the saccharine Terms of Endearment (1983), followed by the satirical Broadcast News (1987), and the more recent romantic comedies Spanglish (2004) and How Do You Know (2010). His roots as a writer / producer lie in TV – successes include Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, and The Simpsons – but As Good As It Gets (1997) is a far riskier concoction because it never manages to become a genuine feel-good outing in spite of the guy and girl filling up great big voids in their lives.
The primary story involves OCD writer Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson, back from Terms of Endearment), first offending his gay neighbours by tossing their dog down the trash chute, and trash-talking humans in front of their faces. He also barks rudely at diners who occupy his table at the specific time and day when he must have his regimented breakfast, and he almost gets banned by its owner after going too far with customers and offending one of their top waitresses, Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), a single mother of an allergy-plagued boy.
Their initially impossible connection begins through sudden acts of kindness on behalf of Melvin – actions that even perplex the perpetual bachelor - and their potential for a peaceful, meaningful union flip-flops as Melvin frequently follows a good thing with a monstrously barbed verbal assault.
Where the couple ‘discover’ themselves is on a road trip designed to help Melvin’s gay neighbour Simon (Greg Kinnear) get back on his feet after the struggling painter is forced to visit his estranged parents for money; he’s not only flat broke, but recovering from a brutal break-in initially managed by a pretty street model (Skeet Ulrich).
Brooks’ strategy is simple: set up the characters through stark conflicts, establish little bridges to bring their disparate personalities together, and pack them into a car and hotel room where things can explode. Good is a strange blend of bathos, drama, and morbid comedy, but it functions because Nicholson really explored his character’s worst habits – unbridled rudeness – and gave the outburst quiet meaning: he creates multiple cyclones but is forced to clean up the mess and rebuild each time, learning something important about himself in every stage.
Perhaps his biggest lessons deal with humility & tolerance, and Brooks could’ve gone into deep melodrama were it not for the outrageous lines and combative personalities of his unlikely heroes. The film could also have become wretchedly maudlin when Carol’s sick son becomes a minor focal point, but perhaps Brooks’ longtime editor Richard Marks (who cut the melodramatic Lies My Father Told Me [M] and the flowing violence in Assassins [M]) knew where to chuck the fat and keep things moving, because as 138 mins. Good is never dull. Brooks makes it clear to audiences he won’t jump from one clichéd situation to another to sacrifice monologues and rob his superior cast of their moments (nor trim the amusing array of cameos and bit parts by various actors and film directors). The film is also highly representative of the comedy as it evolved from the dumb, smack-down romantic vehicles of the eighties and early nineties to small character epics where consequences have to be dealt their due.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray uses a nice sharp master which retains the film’s film grain, and Hans Zimmer score is surprisingly sparse and discrete, rarely making itself known in thematic overstatement or grating montages (most of the time).
Extras include an isolated stereo score track and theatrical trailer, and Julie Kirgo’s liner notes address the film’s status among some critics as a guilty pleasure. It does manipulate and take pokes at viewers when they’re not being sufficiently moved (which is annoying), yet there is something memorable about Good: it works, and will probably age as a highpoint in the weird comedy-drama amalgam typical of Brooks’ modest big screen directorial career.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan