Wednesday, June 4, 2008

It Could Be Better: The Oscar-winning As Good as It Gets (1998)

Full of sugar daddy fantasies for geriatric male film stars, As Good as It Gets exasperated me with its easy schlocky sentimentality and turgid pacing. Think of Jack Nicholson imitating Dustin Hoffman’s rain man as an obsessive compulsive bitter-tongued novelist in Manhattan. Then, in the soap opera tradition of thrown-together-quirky-characters- who-find-themselves through-group-therapy, add on Greg Kinnear, who plays a gay painter, and Helen Hunt, a put-upon waitress with an ill but sweet Tiny Tim poster child. Stir in an ultra-cute scene-stealing Brussels griffon dog who unites everyone by peeing in the apartment foyer, and you get the weepy chuckler movie of the week.

Dragging on for around 2 and ½ hours, As Good chronicles Jack’s character’s slow humanization and socialization. He’s an occasionally witty and rich curmudgeon who must never walk on the cracks of sidewalks. He always eats at the same table in the same restaurant and his heart is cold, and apparently needs warming up by a dog. One day he finds himself taking care of the cutesy little critter, feeds it bacon, plays it a song on the piano, and pretty soon he’s playing Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol, helping everyone out in sight. He pays for a doctor to take care of Helen Hunt’s child, and then much of the rest of the movie hinges on whether or not Hunt will deign to sleep with him in gratitude. Meanwhile, Kinnear’s artist character gets beaten up by two thugs from Scream so we can have the obligatory sad hospital scene.

Through all of this tear-yoking blarney, Helen Hunt clearly out-acts everyone else, approaching her role with the painstaking caution of a television actress, much like Jennifer Anniston attempting the long jump into movies. Since she has to consider a chubby, tired, decadent-looking man clearly 30 years her senior for a “boyfriend,” Hunt has the toughest job of anyone, and she pulls it off well. Greg Kinnear is winsome but not particularly striking, more a supporting player as Nicholson hogs all of the rest of the scenes. I’ll refrain from discussing the acting of the dog.

I think the writer (Mark Andrus) and the director (James L. Brooks) ultimately want us to consider the touching quirky tenuous connections between all those dysfunctional people out there (just like you and me!) who can afford apartments in Manhattan (not like most of us), who just need to talk out their feelings and just learn to say the right thing once in a while, instead of isolating themselves in this Godforsaken woild.

If you like this kind of thing, you might like this movie. You might like the flute, piano, and strings accompaniment for every heartfelt scene. I felt drenched by a bucket of schlock.

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