Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Twelve

30 Day Movie Challenge:

Day Twelve: Favorite Love Story

As Good as It Gets (1997)
Directed by: James L. Brooks
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear

No one ever believes me, but I happen to think I’m quite romantic. I think it’s likely that I just have a weird idea of the subject. That would certainly explain most of my relationships with women, the kind of women I tend to fall for and how my concepts of love and romance influence those things. It’s worth repeating, that I’m naturally cynical about a lot of things, but I always try to leave some room upstairs for what I think love is. It’s a perspective I’ve tried to understand in my own writing, in how I try to get around in the world and in the movies, books, music and more that speak to my perspective in some way.

It’s not a complicated perspective. Straightforward love stories usually don’t grab my interest. It could be that I’m difficult to please. With movies I think my favorite love stories, are the films that go about the whole love thing without being obvious. Strong performances and writing help considerably with that. It doesn’t have to be credible or even realistic. The best romantic films I’ve seen, are those that can yield a sincere reaction from me without some blatant attempt at manipulation. It’s also nice when a movie can bring up love, without smashing sentimentality over my head until one of my eyes is missing, and I have a concussion of some kind.

The best movies I’ve seen, usually wind up sending me into my own ridiculous past, while making me wish I was a little better at capturing love in my own stories. Love is not something I enjoy thinking about a lot. My favorite movies that feature it are able to change my mind if only for a little while.

People can do that, too, of course, but historically speaking I usually tend to wear out my welcome with most after a few hours or less. There’s typically not a lot of room in that space of time for things like love.

Favorite love story could probably be interpreted a number of ways. I’m choosing to go with the romantic one. Even though the movie I’m picking includes at least a couple different kinds of love.  As Good as It Gets made the cut over other titles (The Girl in the Cafe, Punch-Drunk Love to name a few) for that very reason. The movie is primarily about love, and the way it reveals its opinions about that (both in the writing and acting) has spoken nicely to my own feelings and ideas ever since I saw it by accident at some point in 1998. I think it’s an amiable, slightly pessimistic story that at no point makes me feel foolish for liking it so much. It’s simple but not simplistic.

It’s more than just really well-written dialogue, and it’s more than just a lot of great performances. I’m not sure anyone would agree with me, but this may well be my favorite Jack Nicholson performance (he won his third Oscar). The movie isn’t just some of the best work this cast has ever done (which is really the strongest driving point As Good as It Gets has—It’s character-driven in every sense of the word). As Good as It Gets is a love story that covers more than just the weird, constantly strained relationship between Melvin Udall (Nicholson) and Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt, who also won an Oscar). That’s the bulk of the movie, but James L. Brooks knows how to juggle more than one viewpoint, and more than one narrative. The script (co-written by Mark Andrus from his own story) gives Nicholson and Hunt the ability to create fully fleshed-out, believable characters in just a few early scenes. In the beginning their lives only intersect, when Nicholson shows up at the restaurant she works at, to order lavish breakfasts and abuse anyone who is forced to exist in the same universe as him. Circumstances force them to interact more often, and their relationship builds slowly, perfectly from there. It’s the main story arc, but there’s also just enough time and energy spent on developing their characters individually. They don’t simply exist within the confines of their relationship and nowhere else. They live and breathe in the scenes that reveal their personalities, outside of what they show each other and in their dealings with everyone else.

As Good as It Gets is not just their love story. The beginning, middle and end of their romance is not told in a straight line. It veers constantly into other directions and mediations on other kinds of love.  There’s also the beautifully-handled, beautifully-written friendship that grows between Melvin and Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), Melvin’s openly gay artist neighborhood who has recently fallen on hard times. It’s handled with sharp humor and fantastic performances from Nicholson and Kinnear. We don’t buy that Udall truly hates gays (or Jews, black people, cops, old people, children, women, bartenders or waitresses). He’s simply built up a good defense against ever having to deal with people, on any level that puts him at risk. (I can relate to wanting to do that). It’s obvious that he’s going to have to change in order to finally find chaotic happiness over lonely consistency. Falling in love helps him accomplish that, but it doesn’t end there. Melvin’s growth also comes about from reluctantly becoming a source of friendship and comfort for Simon, and from also taking care of Simon’s small, irritating (at least initially) dog. These are three different versions of love, and all of them succeed in telling the story and giving depth to their characters. This is done with Simon, and his friendships with those closest to him (Cuba Gooding Jr. in my favorite role of his and Yeardley Smith, with a small but memorable part). This is also done with Carol, and her family (Shirley Knight and Jesse James). The best stuff typically involves Melvin and everyone else.  It’s still impressive that so many different types of relationship are referenced and explored. All of them eventually bring us back to the main story between Melvin and Carol, and a conclusion that is constantly up in the air.

I think Nicholson is trying to decide if a weepy Helen Hunt turns him on or not. Probably did.

It’s the Melvin/Simon story that contains my favorite line in the movie, and the one I feel sums up the entire story. Simon tells Melvin that he loves him, to which Melvin wearily but touchingly replies “I’ll tell you, buddy, I’d be the luckiest man in the world if that did it for me.” There are a lot of great lines, but I think that one perfectly describes why this movie works so well. As Good as It Gets has a lot of sarcasm and bitterness going for it, but there are also moments of genuine warmth and affection. Brooks maintains a balance of these things. As you’ve probably figured out I’m drawn to things that are sweet, but manage to avoid making all my teeth disintegrate from the saccharine. This movie never even gets close to that. Brooks’ considerable career in TV and film is full of similar examples. I wouldn’t call As Good as It Gets realistic by any means, but its dysfunction underneath its varying stories, is closer to my own my idealized notion of love, than most stories that come to mind.

My other favorite exchange in the film?

Secretary: How do you write women so well?
Melvin: I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.

I don’t necessarily agree with that (Well, maybe sometimes), but it’s easily my favorite film insult of all time. It doesn’t surprise me a bit that this movie can have a vicious line like that, only to then turn on a dime, and give us a line or scene that is the polar opposite. Brooks has always been good with stories like those. Here he has a script and cast that allows him to realize this kind of story perfectly. As Good as It Gets isn’t his only triumph, but it’s nonetheless my favorite movie of his. It’s love expressed in terms I can actually understand. If I didn’t believe in that stuff I think I’d still rate this perfectly. I can watch and enjoy this even when I deeply suspect that love is a profoundly painful, annoying waste of time. It probably won’t change my mind, but that hardly matters with a movie this good. There are so many ways to enjoy As Good as It Gets. I can think of several pretty quickly.

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