Other people will tell you what’s good about As Good As It Gets. They are not wrong, but too many people are putting this flawed movie on their “ten best” lists, and I think a contrasting point of view is deserved.
What About Bob?, Frank Oz, 1991. It's a stretch, but Nicholson seemed to borrow some mannerisms from Bill Murray's character.
The dialogue written for Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt by Mark Andrus and Brooks is funny and fresh. Nicholson is great as Melvin, the cross between Archie Bunker, Ebenezer Scrooge, and What About Bob. Hunt is very good as Carol the waitress, who endures Melvin when nobody else will. Greg Kinnear is alright as Simon, Melvin’s gay artist neighbor whose little doggy is a source of friction between them.
When Simon is hospitalized from a serious beating, Melvin is “suckered in, set up, pushed around” into watching Simon’s dog for him. The story shows Melvin’s slow and gradual redemption, from prickly offensive loner to quirky loveable coot. Melvin starts his redemption slowly, with his affection for Simon’s little dog, working his way up through attempts at fuller and richer human relationships, ultimately aiming for a genuine adult relationship with Carol.
Melvin shows real progress toward becoming a likeable human being, developing friendships both with Carol and with Simon, but Melvin’s story runs into problems toward the end. Nicholson is not to blame, his characterization is top notch, rather, it is the screenwriting and direction that sells short Melvin’s well-earned salvation.
The first sign of trouble comes when, after being paid the nicest compliment of her life, Carol can’t forgive Melvin a relatively small slip of the tongue, even though she knows of his psychological handicap. She storms out of the restaurant and into the arms of Simon. Simon seems to pose no sexual competition to Melvin, but his sensitivity proves enough to satisfy Carol’s needs. Carol and Simon realize they have something good without Melvin.
If that scene is as true as it plays, then the movie should logically end as a tragedy for our main character Melvin. But because the genre is romantic comedy, things have to work out for Melvin, and that makes the previous scene a manipulative lie.
What happens next is entirely too much will-they-or-won’t-they. Since the movie didn’t end after Carol and Simon’s night together, we know that all the “tension” is a false attempt to pull on our heartstrings one more time before the movie ends. It was a real disappointment after an otherwise good movie.
Perhaps another way to summarize what’s wrong with As Good As it Gets is to say that the movie treats its female lead as an object. Melvin has spent the entire movie proving himself worthy of Carol’s affections, and she has even come to accept them, fully knowing his flaws. But because the writers need to drag the story out another 20 minutes, they have Carol reject Melvin once or twice. She is not acting as a human being, she is acting as the fickle object of Melvin’s affections, serving the purposes of her writers, not of herself.
As Good As It Gets reminds me of last year’s Jerry Maguire. Both are heartwarming comedies about redemption, both are widely praised by critics, but deep down, both are shallow and give too little freedom to their characters, at the expense of manipulative, manufactured love stories.
This movie was a nice try: not quite perfect, but with lots of redeeming qualities. Ordinarily I would recommend such a movie, but because this movie has already gotten lots of praise — too much, in fact — I cannot.