As Good As It Gets is my second favorite movie of all time. I have prolonged writing this review for years because I fear that I cannot put into words how this film continues to entertain me every time I watch it; how it makes me smile with its lightness and liveliness; and how I am still shocked/taken aback/mesmerized by the words coming out of Melvin Udall’s (Jack Nicholson) mouth, even though I know exactly what he is going to say.
I love the pacing of the plot as it flows from one event to the next with no evidence of predetermination. The first time we see Melvin go into Carol’s (Helen Hunt) restaurant for breakfast, we never think that by the end of the movie, they will both go on a trip to Baltimore. Yet, they both accompany Melvin’s gay neighbor and victim of a robbery, Simon (Greg Kinnear), as he goes to Baltimore to ask his estranged parents for money. The fact that the two leads reach the climax of their storyline as they are on a plot diversion for the storyline of the supporting character seems so random, but it truly embodies the way that life is. Life is rarely a series of linear events that happen in a logical and predictable order. There is always a bit of chaos in it, such as not knowing if the woman you depend on to bring you eggs in the morning will call in sick or if you will suddenly have to get up in the middle of the night to take a train across town and walk through the pouring rain to tell a man you will not sleep with him.
A story about life should not have only one protagonist since life is all about interpersonal connections. Arguable, Melvin is our protagonist as he does interact with the two other principal actors, but the movie exists in parts without him. By the time the trio gets back from Baltimore, Carol and Simon are as chummy as if they had been longtime friends. It is true that Melvin’s insensitivities were the catalyst that brought these two together, but they managed to form a relationship built on nude sketching and independent of Melvin. Ironically, a far more iconic relationship built on nude sketching came out in the same year, obscuring this one behind its titanic shadow.
The screenplay was smooth, witty and rife with memorable quotes, most of them belonging to Melvin. In response to being asked how he writes women so well, he says “I think of a man and I take away reason and accountability.” When asking Carol her age, he says “Judging by your eyes, I’d say you were 50.” When introducing Carol to Simon, he says “Carol the waitress, [meet] Simon the fag.” But one quote, and really the entire scene, trumps every ridiculous thing Melvin has said throughout the movie. After insulting Carol’s dress, Melvin offers up a circuitous compliment and then delivers the most heart-melting line of the entire movie: “You make me want to be a better man.” Jack Nicholson’s voice gets deeper and the gravity of the statement slowly sinks into Carol’s mind. She gets up and moves to the chair closer to him and the camera stays fixed on her face as it pans around the table. For the first time in the entire movie, Carol has let down her defenses and allowed a man to impress her and you can see it in her face. Finally, Carol says “Why did you bring me here?” and after some stuttering from Melvin, she says “If you ask, I’ll say yes.” This scene is undeniably the literary climax of the movie, but the denouement is rapid, as good situations with Melvin usually are.
I have seen this movie at least ten times and the characters get more nuanced each time. This is one of those few films that actually gets better and better with repeated viewings since it is not immediately showy, but emotionally rich.