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As Good As It Gets (15). James L Brooks's strenuously anti-PC romantic comedy is even more woolly-headed and disingenuous than the overrated writer-director's previous films have been. In full-on scenery-chewing, eyebrow-flexing, Oscar-winning mode, Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, an irrationally spiteful, obssessive-compulsive romance novelist. Outlandishly racist, sexist, and homophobic, Melvin verbally assaults everyone around him - a single-mother waitress (Helen Hunt, an equally undeserving Oscar winner) and her sick kid, a gay neighbour (Greg Kinnear) and his pesky dog - before coming to his senses (for no apparent reason, and just in time for a last-minute metamorphosis). The film is shapeless, unfunny, and rooted in a uniquely Nineties brand of faulty reasoning. It's a perfect example of Hollywood wanting it both ways (how can you object to the anti- hero's nominally amusing obnoxiousness if it's all in the name of redemption?) and getting it all wrong (you can object if his behaviour is as pointlessly vile - and subsequent rote transformation as absurdly unconvincing - as it is here).

In the Company of Men (18). Neil LaBute's first feature is even more keen to scandalize than As Good As It Gets, but its strategy is significantly more interesting. Two white-collar middle-management types (Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy) systematically and simultaneoulsy woo and then dump a deaf woman (Stacy Edwards) - just because they can. Less concerned with the battle of the sexes than with male oneupmanship, In the Company of Men is, fundamentally, a clever, deftly executed stunt - astringent drama (or comedy, if you have a strong enough stomach) conceived for the express purpose of making the viewer squirm. The film's chief provocation is an obvious one: LaBute ultimately denies the audience its need for catharsis. It's a logical parting shot for a movie intent on testing the limits of what the villain (and, by extension, the filmmaker) can get away with.

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