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As Good as It Gets (1997) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

melvin simon carol dog

Principal social themes: homosexuality, disabilities

TriStar Pictures. PG-13 rating. Featuring: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight, Yeardley Smith, Lupe Ontiveros, Bibi Osterwald, Ross Bleckner, Jesse James, Lawrence Kasdan, Linda Gehringer, Julie Benz, Harold Ramis, Jill. Written by Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks based on a story by Mark Andrus. Cinematography by John Bailey. Edited by Richard Marks. Music by Hans Zimmer. Produced by James L. Brooks, Bridgit Johnson, and Kristi Zea. Directed by James L. Brooks. B&W. 139 minutes.


Although considered a romantic comedy, As Good As It Gets covers a number of social issues within its storyline, particularly the overcoming of the principal character’s homophobia and his coming to terms with his own disability, an extreme case of obsessive/compulsive disorder. The production paid special attention to get the symptoms of this condition (repetitive rituals and phobias) accurately portrayed in the character of Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson). The film garnered considerable financial and critical success, winning a Golden Globe Award as Best Picture. Jack Nicholson won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and Helen Hunt won the Best Actress award. Greg Kinnear was also nominated as Best Supporting Actor in a role that won him considerable praise for its positive and sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual who faces and overcomes not only prejudice but also medical and financial challenges.


The film opens in a fashionable Manhattan apartment, where Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) attempts to lure his neighbor’s small dog into the elevator. Failing that, he picks the dog up and throws him down the garbage chute. Moments later, Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), a mild-mannered artist, approaches Udall to ask about his dog, Verdell. After his dog is located, Simon attempts to scold Melvin, but instead the irascible man insults and browbeats Simon for disturbing him. However, Simon’s agent Frank (Cuba Gooding Jr.) later corners Melvin and warns him that he now owes a moral debt to Simon that he must someday repay. It turns out that Melvin is a popular romance novelist who is bedeviled by many psychological compunctions, including his belligerence to everyone he meets, making an endless string of comments that are anti-gay, racist, or sexist. He is an extremely unpopular and disliked man. He is also a cleanliness freak, refuses to step on any cracks in the street, and unable to eat except at one specific table at a local restaurant. Only one waitress, Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), a hardworking single mother, has the patience to deal with him. When she takes offense at a comment he makes about her sickly son, she forces him to back down and behave. After Simon is assaulted and badly beaten in a robbery attempt, Frank forces Melvin to care for Verdell. Slowly, the charm and lively antics of the dog begin to win Melvin over and soon he starts to dote on the animal. A crisis develops when Carol takes time off from her job to care for her son, who has a severe case of asthma. Melvin arranges and pays for a specialist to treat the boy, on the condition that Carol returns to her job. The waitress is suspicious but grateful for this unexpected act of kindness. Meanwhile, Simon returns from the hospital, but finds himself penniless due to mounting bills and his inability to work. Most of his friends abandon him, but he is unexpectedly assisted by Melvin, who continues to walk and help care for Verdell. Frank persuades Melvin to drive Simon to Baltimore so he can approach his wealthy parents for assistance. Years earlier, his father disowned him when he learned of his homosexuality. Melvin asks Carol to come along on the trip to serve as chaperone, since he is still not really comfortable around Simon. They reach Baltimore, and take rooms at a hotel. Melvin takes Carol to a fancy restaurant where he tells her that he is now taking some medication to help his disorder because he wants to be a better person, a feeling she inspired in him. Carol is moved by this revelation, but Melvin then makes some inappropriate comments, and she runs off, going to Simon’s room at the hotel. She winds up posing for Simon, who finds himself inspired by her and able to draw again. The artist is so delighted that he does not approach his parents for money. When they return to New York, Carol storms off, filled with mixed feelings about Melvin. She is attracted to him, but put off by his attitude and compulsive condition. Simon has been tossed out of his apartment, and Melvin offers to let him to stay in his own spare room. Simon persuades Melvin to go to Carol’s house and let her know he loves her. He follows Simon’s advice, and Carol becomes convinced that he truly loves her and would also make a good father for her son.


In essence, the success of this film relies on three fascinating central characters, Nicholson’s tormented, caustic romance novelist, Hunt’s no-nonsense but caring waitress, and Kinnear’s sensitive and troubled artist. In fact, Kinnear’s character has equivalent screen time as the others, but at award time he was considered in the supporting category. One could also argue that Verdell (played by six different Brussels Griffon dogs with Jill being the foremost of the group) is the picture’s main character for the entire first half of the film, receding in importance only after the road trip to Baltimore commences. Each of the main characters reflects different social issues. Simon is a complex and multilayered character. His homosexuality is a crucial element in the entire story. More precisely, it is Melvin’s reaction to Simon’s homosexuality that is film’s pivotal reaction. Melvin’s response slowly moves from private fear and ridicule to acceptance and finally sincere friendship. The most remarkable line in the film occurs in the last scene between Kinnear and Nicholson. When Simon tells Melvin that he loves him, the author sighs and says, “I tell you, buddy, I would be the luckiest guy alive if that did it for me.” This transformation seems so honest that it might inspire some audience members to reexamine their own attitudes. The only shortcoming is that Simon seems to be too nice. It is hard to imagine anyone who would not find this earnest, friendly individual appealing. Composer Hans Zimmer provides Simon with a charming melody that resembles the main theme from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf . This musical bit makes his character seem gentle, naive, and innocent. Compared to Simon, Melvin starts off as the big bad wolf: snarling, grouchy, selfish, and bitter. It takes genuine skill for Nicholson to gain the sympathy of the audience. Although his insults are offensive, they are also witty, so Nicholson manages to make it seem that Melvin is not really anti-Semitic or anti-black, just an equal opportunity misanthrope. It is the dog Verdell who breaks down Melvin’s hard-hearted exterior and provides the first step in Melvin’s redemption. As a social problem, Melvin’s disorder is a tragic handicap, leaving him an outcast. If he did not have his wealth, Melvin would be in dire straits. He had completely shut the door to his own humanity. When Simon returns from the hospital and reclaims Verdell, Melvin sits alone and starts to simultaneously laugh and cry, saying aloud, “It’s all because of a dog!” After having his emotions awakened by Verdell, Melvin falls in love with Carol, who hesitates at first to respond because of his obsessiveness. Carol’s situation reflects the film’s third social issue, the gaps and inadequacies of the modern day medical care system. Just as Simon was healed but bankrupted by his medical treatment, Carol’s son is also let down because he is provided with only minimal attention. When her son receives proper treatment due to Melvin’s intercession, her rant against HMOs usually provokes a strong round of applause by the audience. In conclusion, As Good As It Gets does an excellent job utilizing a number of social concerns without ever being preachy or obvious; it remains a solid example of screen entertainment. This is no small accomplishment.

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