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[whitespace] As Good as It Gets
Dining Out: Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt overcome their difference over dinner in James L. Brooks' 'As Good as It Gets.'

Nicholson drops the gimmicks and plays a down-to-earth character

By Zack Stentz

WATCHING As Good as It Gets is a bit like stepping into a parallel universe, one where the early-1970s golden age of character-driven American cinema (roughly bounded by Easy Rider on one end and Nashville on the other) never ended. Doesn't director James Brooks realize that star-driven, major-studio releases are supposed to have crusading lawyers fighting serial-killing aliens over stolen nuclear weapons? He seems to think drama and conflict mean people in apartments and restaurants being witty, hurting each other's feelings and searching for happiness. And the only expensive special effect on display is Jack Nicholson giving his eyebrows a rest for once and actually playing an honest-to-God character.

As Good as It Gets could loosely be called a romantic comedy, but one that eschews While You Were Sleeping-style treacle and actually puts real obstacles in its characters' paths. Brooks' script is as dense with great one-liners as the great comedies of the 1930s, but with a modern sensibility finely tuned to the cast at hand. Imagine Cary Grant playing an obsessive-compulsive misanthropic writer, Katharine Hepburn as a single mother cursing HMOs while worrying about her asthmatic child and Ralph Bellamy as a gay artist, and one gets a sense of how anchored in the late 1990s the film is.

Nicholson plays the writer, of course, and he could have easily mailed in yet another lovable bastard doodle and collected his check. But as soon as his character sits at the piano to launch into a self-loathing cocktail-lounge version of the Monty Python classic "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," it becomes clear that the brooding, desperate Nicholson of Five Easy Pieces is back. And none too soon. It's a delight to see the old warhorse flexing long-forgotten muscles as his character is gradually won over by the winning combination of Helen Hunt as the only waitress in New York who tolerates his tantrums, and his gay neighbor (Greg Kinnear) with a neurotic dog who senses a kindred spirit in Nicholson.

The pageant of instantly regretted insults, unexpected generosities and tentative contacts that charts these characters' efforts to connect with each other is a delight, especially in an age in which quipping over the corpse you've just pumped lead into qualifies as inventive writing. Still, it leaves one bitter to think of the two decades of great performances Nicholson forsook to get rich playing maniacs and comic-book villains. I love popcorn movies as much as the next person, but it's depressing to realize that without the Lucas/Spielberg-spawned blockbuster mentality that currently rules Hollywood, any given year might produce a dozen films like As Good as It Gets, and watching Nicholson give a credible performance might be more common than spotting Halley's Comet.

As Good as It Gets (PG-13; 138 min.), directed by James L. Brooks, written by Brooks and Mark Andrus, photographed by John Bailey and starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt.

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From the December 31, 1997-January 7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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