Magazine article The Spectator

That Nicholson Charm

Magazine article The Spectator

That Nicholson Charm

Article excerpt


As Good As It Gets (15, selected cinemas)

James Brooks's As Good As It Gets is a tough-love, off-kilter romantic comedy about an obsessive-compulsive (Jack Nicholson), a put-upon waitress (Helen Hunt), a gay neighbour (Greg Kinnear) and a dog. If the shorthand sounds a bit glib, you should hear Nicholson: `Carol the waitress, meet Simon the fag.' As Melvin, insulting and alienating everyone he meets, Nicholson crackles with more energy than he's shown in a decade. He is, of all things, a romantic novelist, cranking out idealised love stories he's got no time for in his own life. On a visit to his publisher, the starstruck receptionist accosts him and tells him how uncanny it is that he seems to know everything that's going on inside her. How is he able to write female characters so well? Easy, he says; he just writes male characters and then eliminates reason and judgment.

In fact, his only point of human contact, male or female, is with Carol, whose restaurant he visits every day, though he takes the precaution of bringing his own plastic utensils. Shanghaied into driving the gay guy to Baltimore, Melvin talks Carol into coming along, just in case Simon the fag `pulls the stiff one-eye' on him. Miss Hunt does a much better job than she did in Twister, almost succeeding in looking as bedraggled and haggard as Nicholson says she does. If I bring up Carol's sick kid, don't be put off. Nicholson is sly and malicious enough to hold his own even in the most potentially mawkish scenes. For most of the last few years, from the Joker in Batman to the howling lead of Wolf, Nicholson has been in danger of deteriorating into a cartoon of his former self - all sex, smiles and cockiness. It takes a dorky loser-weirdo like Melvin to enable the real Nicholson charm to come through.

Besides, even an ailing moppet shouldn't blind us to how unusual this film is for a mainstream comedy. All three principals are failures and the laughs they wring from it are sharper than we've come to expect from this genre. That's the challenge Brooks has set himself: a romantic comedy is supposed to be as light as a souffle, but can you do that with a character determined to puncture it whenever it starts to rise? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. As Good As It Gets is just that.

Lloyd Bridges, who died last week at 85, was one of those actors who could make almost anything watchable. …

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