Film Review: A sitcom for the big screen

the big picture

James L Brooks (15)

At the core of the sparky new comedy As Good As It Gets is a very knowing performance by Jack Nicholson as Melvin Udall, a gnarled, misanthropic New Yorker whose obsessive-compulsive disorders prevent him from participating in normal life, whether it's stepping on the cracks in the pavement, or eating with restaurant cutlery. He bashes out enormously popular romantic fiction that Mills & Boon would consider excessively saccharine, and it's one of the film's neatest jokes that this man who makes Alf Garnett look like Barbara Cartland should be the author of novels that make Barbara Cartland look like Irvine Welsh. When an effusive female fan asks Melvin how he writes such believable women, he sneers: "I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability."

By this point in the film, we have already witnessed Melvin hurling a cute pooch down a rubbish chute, exhibiting racist, misogynistic and anti- Semitic tendencies, and telling his gay neighbour Simon (Greg Kinnear), the victim of a brutal attack, "you'll be back on your knees in no time." He's like Jerry Springer's dream guest. There aren't many actors who can behave despicably on screen and remain both engaging and unimpeachable, but Jack Nicholson is one of them. Our familiarity with his abrasive persona licences a considerable quantity of objectionable jokes, to which the viewer has the choice of maintaining a fraught silence, or laughing at the gleeful abandon with which Melvin contravenes social etiquette - laughing not at the joke, that is, but at the fact that it has been made.

Either way, the film would fall apart if an audience didn't retain a vestige of grudging sympathy for Melvin. That makes Nicholson the only man for the job; he was born getting away with it. Knowing that the film will devote itself to thawing out this frozen soul does nothing to diminish your pleasure at being there to witness the defrosting process.

As big-screen sitcoms go, As Good As It Gets is as good as it gets. Whenever a film is likened to a sitcom, the comparison is usually a disparaging one, signalling a lack of scope and depth, but we would be wise to remember that there are sitcoms and then there are sitcoms. James L Brooks is a maker of dependable, intelligent entertainment (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News) though his real forte has been as a driving force behind some of the finest American comedy of the past 30 years, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and The Simpsons. It's true that a distinctive televisual sensibility can be detected in the DNA of As Good As It Gets, in its flat photography and the assured momentum of its stroll towards resolution. But there's something else here. Brooks has worked in the industry for long enough now to know that a two-hour film is sustained by very different properties than a 25-minute show. To this end, he has introduced into his movie some unexpected ambiguities and detours that the digestive system of the most dextrous TV sitcoms would have difficulty processing.

The film is driven less by a narrative than by a succession of contrivances so mechanical that you feel as though the screenwriters (Brooks and Mark Andrus) are continually asking you for favours: please just accept that Melvin would agree to look after Simon's dog while he's in hospital, and that man and canine would bond for life; oh, and can you find it in your heart to excuse the fact that the only reason Melvin's favourite waitress Carol (Helen Hunt) has an asthmatic son is so that Melvin can generously pay the child's medical bills, and emotionally blackmail Carol into going on a trip with him and Simon? Did we mention the trip? Well, when the financially ruined Simon needs to beg for money from his parents, Melvin agrees to drive him there. And Carol comes along for the ride. Swallow that lot and we'll pay you back, honest.

Brooks and Andrus undoubtedly make good on that promise with a touching loyalty to their creations. It may still be expecting too much to hope that a prominent gay character like Simon might be allowed to express his sexual desires, but the film permits him to be passionate by proxy, channelling his desire into his art, though unfortunately his paintings are just awful.

There is the usual food-chain of neediness, in which each character compensates for another's emotional deficiency, and even a moment when Simon says "If you look at a person for long enough, you can see their humanity", but the film survives both of these errors. There's an especially good scene in which Simon is telling Carol about a time when his father beat him up, while Melvin looks on disdainfully, finally interjecting with a painful memory of his own which is reeled off with a dispassionate bluntness. Simon gets to finish his story, but Melvin's past is not referred to again - perhaps because it would disturb the film's gentle rhythms, but also because the screenplay argues that we can escape our history and re-invent ourselves, like the art-dealer (Cuba Gooding Jnr) who is loath to draw on his thuggish reserves now that he is a member of high society. We can start again. Learn to like people. Learn to walk on the cracks.

Melvin' s anal-retentive rituals are the source of many of the film's funniest moments. The in-car music collection which he has catalogued in order to predetermine the mood of the entire trip - "To use as an icebreaker", reads one label, while another says "To pep things up" - is a particularly witty touch. But the picture slowly and subtly reveals that Melvin isn't such an oddity. He doesn't quite fit, which makes him fit right in. He's not so different from Simon's friend, who arrives bearing bad news written on cue-cards, so that she can progress through each topic in an orderly manner without expressing undue emotion, or the character whose answerphone asks the caller to "leave a message with all the pertinent information".

In this storm of dysfunction, Carol is the closest thing that the film has to a stable centre. Cinema has taken to canonising single mothers, but Helen Hunt is feisty enough to muddy Carol's wholesome appearance or at least to use that wicked smile of hers to suggest something more interesting then saintliness. She has a wonderful moment when Simon is sketching her as she perches on the edge of a bath, and she has to feign just enough modesty to be convincing without discouraging him from completing the portrait. Invigorated by his attention, she tugs at her towel to reveal a few more inches of flesh, and her face comes alive with a look that might be coy or brazen or both.