Starting out bitter and then becoming sweet, the romantic comedy is a tired genre, but director James L. Brooks refuses to let it derail his film. Instead, he exposes the genre’s vulnerabilities, taking us on a journey of self-discovery. As Good as It Gets is about fighting for love and acceptance from even the harshest of big-screen characters.
Bigoted, ill-tempered, and homophobic, Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is an obsessive-compulsive novelist devoted to writing romance novels, a feeling he ironically doesn’t subscribe to nor believe in. Asked by a fawning fan how he writes his female characters so convincingly, Melvin replies, “I think of a man. And I take away reason and accountability.”
This pavement-crevice-avoiding curmudgeon despises everyone in his apartment, and the movie opens with him slam-dunking his neighbour’s dog down the trash chute, bellowing, “This is New York. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
The first half-hour of the film is both hilarious and hard to watch, as Melvin spews venom at all unsuspecting New Yorkers in his path, including the kind-hearted waitress Carol (Helen Hunt), who serves him daily, “just the way he wants.” Carol—a single mother bound by her own stressful circumstance—good-heartedly tolerates Melvin’s diatribes. But she draws the line when Melvin mocks her child’s severe asthma attacks, demanding he apologizes. Albeit small, it’s Melvin’s first sign of vulnerability, which is monumental for a character as cynical as he.
Later on, Melvin’s neighbour, Simon (Greg Kinnear), is hospitalized after a botched robbery. This leaves Simon unable to care for his dog, Verdell, and leads Frank, his agent and love interest (Cuba Gooding Jr.), to convince dog-hating Melvin to take care of him. After unwillingly agreeing, Melvin, to his amazement (but not ours), develops a grudging affection for the ugly but endearing pooch that wags its way into his corroded heart.
Now, Melvin is a sinner on the road to redemption, kicking and screaming along the way. His reluctant good deeds—covering Carol’s son’s medical bills and caring for his neighbour’s dog—reveal a different, more hospitable side of him.
Eventually, the three main characters converge on a road trip to Simon’s estranged parents’ house. Along the way, Melvin forms an unlikely friendship with his neighbour and falls in love with the caring waitress. Amid the troubled waters that they all seem to share, they begin to mend their scattered selves, sparking the film’s iconic, tear-inducing line: “You make me want to be a better man.”
This politically incorrect movie depicts a love that’s transformative, exploring traditional romantic elements and a fresh-spin on the changed man trope. Meanwhile, the music parallels Melvin’s progression, from abrupt violin squeals in the opening to softer instrumentals by the end credits. Change is imminent for everyone willing to pursue it.
As Good as It Gets reveals our need for companionship. While Melvin flirts with abandonment, the other characters, those he insults most, help divulge his dormant humanity—all done in a believable fashion.
As one of only seven films in history to earn Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Actress, As Good as It Getsenraptures us through its leading roles. Both Nicholson and Hunt embody complex characters as we rummage through this refreshingly raw storyline. Under the influence of love, Melvin becomes a man who, while still brash, finds warmth and optimism in life. It’s a testament to why As Good as It Gets remains a superior piece of sentimentality. One that’s uncompromisingly human and true.