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Screen scene

"I want a boyfriend who won't go crazy on me. That's all I want!" cries Carol the waitress to her mother, who answers, `That's what we all want. But it doesn't exist." That's because the "he" in question, an obsessive- compulsive writer in the comedy As Good As It Gets, is the father of all crazy guys: Jack Nicholson.

From Easy Rider, Little Shop of Horrors, Oscar-winning turns in Terms of Endearment and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the chicken salad scene in Five Easy Pieces, when Nicholson's good, you've got a movie. He's the Teflon rogue that all men want to be, with a glimpse of suffering thrown in for the ladies.

When he's bad, he squeaks. Think of that telegraphed courtroom scene in A Few Good Men, those mobile eyebrows that have more ham than the Tamworth Two. How can you tell when Nicholson's acting poorly? Simple. He keeps making that "Here's Johnny" face as he did in The Shining. It's hard to miss. The axe was there as a diversion.

As a jaw-droppingly horrid bigot who will verbally assault anyone, Nicholson takes the nasty piece of work that Melvin is and makes him surprising. Sure, he'll savage the poor cleaner's life-affirming spiel with a bitter stream that starts, "Did you learn that from one of those Panamanian hump- hump bars?" But I can't think of another actor who can make that filth funny. When Melvin buckles - and this is very non-Nicholson - we get the pure pleasure of watching the big bad man get it wrong, try again and strive for redemption. As if he were human or something.

The old hambone's given such a performance in As Good As It Gets that I must move him from the Movie Star category to the Actor category. Of the film's three Golden Globes, the statistical forerunner to Oscars, Nicholson earned the Globe for Best Actor by doing the impossible - managing to stop being so damned "Nicholson" all the time.

As Good As It Gets is the perfect date movie for our generation - the one with all that emotional baggage. Of course, beautiful ensemble-playing from Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear and Cuba Gooding Jr, a great script and one hell of a hairy dog helps. Mostly, however, the film marks the first time Jack Nicholson's put down that axe.