Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson star in AS GOOD AS IT GETS, directed by James L. Brooks for Tri-Star Pictures.

As Good as It Gets (1997, James L. Brooks)

As I recall, there were lots of production issues with As Good as It Gets, specifically in terms of boosting Cuba Gooding Jr.’s role (after winning his Oscar) and maybe shortening Skeet Ulrich’s. It all shows, as does the uneasy rewrite Brooks did of Mark Andrus’s script. I have no idea what Andrus’s original script read like, but the filmed version is a confused mess. A lot of As Good as It Gets feels like the filmmakers grafted the Helen Hunt character and plot on to the Jack Nicholson, Greg Kinnear, and cute dog plot–especially given how there’s a natural flow to that plot, but not a natural one to the romance. The final scenes with Kinnear and Nicholson play really well, while the final scene with Nicholson and Hunt plays like a romantic comedy unsure how to finish and doing the best it can.

The problem with As Good as It Gets–one encompassing the script problems too–is the lack of atmosphere. It’s competently directed, but artlessly made (John Bailey’s photography is dull and Hans Zimmer’s score is trying for cute). A lot of it filmed in California–sitting in for New York–and while it doesn’t quite show, the tone is wrong. It feels like a sitcom, especially in the first hour with the scenes at the restaurant. It’s as real as an episode of “Friends” and a lot of the pseudo-quirky casting lends itself to that tone–Jamie Kennedy in a practically dialogue-less role, Harold Ramis popping in (even if Ramis is really funny). And the lack of weight to Hunt’s kid’s medical problems. Seven and a half years of dire medical problems get wiped away in order to make for an easy movie. The lack of any real medical reasoning for Nicholson’s condition (he’s a bigot, where’s he get the pill to fix that one?). The absence of resolution to Kinnear’s assault… As Good as It Gets wipes them all away.

The (very) general filmmaking competence and good performances carry it. Gooding is a lot of fun and any additional scenes for him are welcome. Ulrich is awful, but he’s barely there. The Oscar-winners… well, neither of them deserved them, especially not Hunt. She’s fine, but all of her acting tricks are the same she used on “Mad About You.” And her sometimes implied Brooklyn accent is mistake. Nicholson’s good, but it’s kind of pointless. It’s not an ambitious performance for him–and the scene where he talks about playing the piano, bringing up Five Easy Pieces, just reminds he should have been doing something much better. Then there’s the one who didn’t win, Kinnear, who certainly deserved it. Kinnear’s performance is fantastic, as he brings this cookie cutter character to a real level. Only Kinnear manages to convince he’s not a sitcom character.

Given James L. Brooks’s pedigree, As Good as It Gets ought to be a lot better. But it’s amiable and well-paced for two hours plus and occasionally real funny. And a lot of the acting makes it worthwhile… but it’s a shame about Brooks.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by James L. Brooks; screenplay by Mark Andrus and Brooks, based on a story by Andrus; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Richard Marks; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Bill Brzeski; produced by Bridget Johnson, Kristi Zea and Brooks; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Melvin Udall), Helen Hunt (Carol Connelly), Greg Kinnear (Simon Bishop), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Frank Sachs), Skeet Ulrich (Vincent), Shirley Knight (Beverly), Yeardley Smith (Jackie) and Lupe Ontiveros (Nora).


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