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All Jack and No Play

When first we see Melvin Udall, middle-aged misanthrope, he's stuffing his neighbor's pesky little dog into the garbage chute of their Manhattan apartment building. That's perfection. Melvin, we soon learn, is nasty by reflex--a selfish, acid-tongued homophobe who has no use for Jews, blacks, children, women or anybody else who doesn't live precisely inside his own skin. So there's no reason to believe he likes dogs. In fact, anyone or anything standing in the path of his rigid resolve had better look out.

By the way, he also writes romance novels, plays the piano and suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. In stages, we come to see there's a scared puppy hiding inside the wolf.

Who else but Jack Nicholson to play the part--in fact, all the parts--of Melvin Udall? In As Good As It Gets, the old master of the hooded gaze and the baleful stare gets to show off a little, along with the buffoon. The lunatic who went after his family with an ax in The Shining emerges again, along with the duty-bound Marine of A Few Good Men, the likable fools of The Fortune and Prizzi's Honor and a few other ghosts from the past. Jack Nicholson opens the Jack Nicholson sample case wide here, and we glimpse everything.

Is that a good thing? Well, yes and no. At two hours and eighteen minutes, James L. Brooks's dark romantic comedy is not what you'd call concise. There's too long a wait between verbal zingers, and the forces that eventually redeem our cynical malcontent--Woman, Gay Neighbor, Dog--don't quite add up.

Still, Nicholson remains one of the most pleasurable actors in all moviedom to watch, no matter what he's doing. There's a world of meaning in his smallest gestures. In As Good... Melvin fiddles with a little package of plastic cutlery he takes to the same restaurant every day. He savages a helpless housemaid ("Sell crazy someplace else! We're all stocked up here!"). He smooths his hair before talking on the telephone. He carefully opens his medicine chest, revealing three dozen neatly stacked bars of soap. He glares at the world, his sworn enemy. And he doles out little pieces of his pained vulnerability as if they were gold nuggets.

Nicholson and Brooks first teamed up fifteen years ago on the memorable Oscar winner Terms of Endearment, and they still understand each other's moves. In the film's first sequence, after dispatching the dog but before he even has a chance to slip back into the sanctuary of apartment 8-C, Melvin has established his credentials as an authentic nutjob whose mind doesn't quite catch up with what his hands are doing and whose craggy face reveals the odd mixture of triumph and agony we will see all movie long. Actor and director are clearly on the same page--cunning conspirators in a comic secret.

Unfortunately, that doesn't leave much room for the rest of the cast. Helen Hunt, the popular star of TV's Mad About You series and the intrepid tornado-chaser in Twister, gets the nod here as Carol, a beleaguered cafe waitress who endures Mel's daily tirades, has a son at home in Brooklyn (Jesse James) who's seriously ill with asthma, and wonders if she'll ever find love in her life. Hunt's bridge-and-tunnel accent comes and goes through the course of the movie, and so does her importance to the proceedings. For a character who's supposed to be feisty and independent and the vivid equal to Melvin's ravings, she's strictly a second-class citizen, and it's hard to believe--as we must--that this is the woman who's about to turn Melvin around. Hunt never quite strikes the appropriate spark, and neither Brooks nor Nicholson seems to want to let her.

Down in the third-class cabins, we find Greg Kinnear's Simon, the gay artist and tormented neighbor, and Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays Frank, Simon's art dealer. When Simon is beaten up in his own studio by a couple of street hustlers, the unlikely Melvin gets stuck caring for his dog, Verdell, and--as the script by Brooks and co-writer Mark Andrus would have it--begins to start caring for his fellow human beings as well. But Kinnear, like Hunt, is a pawn in this game: The film is as selfish in parading Melvin's quirks, disorders and outbursts as Melvin is himself.

Truth be told, Brooks knows where the strength lies. To watch Jack Nicholson, desperate to avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk, is a thing of beauty; to watch Helen Hunt hug her screen child is strictly fifth business. Even when our unhappy and loveless trio--habit-ruled writer, impoverished mother and ruined gay painter--suddenly find themselves together in a car on the road to Baltimore, there's nothing like equality in the proceedings. The trip also seems to take forever. The new Hollywood commandment says: Thou Shalt Release No Holiday Movie Under Two and a Half Hours, even though a bit of tightening and cutting and cleaning up would have served Brooks well here.

In the end, what we have in As Good As It Gets is the story of Scrooge--without Christmas. Before Humbug turns to Hug, our Melvin has to recognize that Verdell's the dog, Carol's the woman and Simon's the friend who can who save him from the darkness--while he saves them from theirs. Given the depth of Mel's gloom, the sting of his sarcasm and the grip of his disease, that's a tall order, and the feel-good redemption Brooks lays on here seems a little unearned, a bit arbitrary.

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