If a movie is going to have a complete dick as a protagonist, said dick better be played by one charming movie star like say, Jack Nicholson. Hence the success of As Good As It Gets (1997) James L. Brooks’ comedy-drama in which Nicholson plays reclusive New York City author Melvin Udall for whom good manners is a foreign concept. Melvin does many bad things throughout the story, the first one being throwing a small dog down a garbage chute. Luckily for him and the audience, Helen Hunt is his favourite waitress and she does end up melting his icy heart revealing a more or less kind man. It’s cheesy, but it works and it is often hilarious.
This was one of my first Jack Nicholson films and it came out right around the time I was living in Santiago, Chile, because of my dad’s job. As transplanted Canadians living in a Spanish-speaking country we of course had to learn to speak the local language and luckily for us the American movies came out in English with Spanish subtitles. So when Nicholson said the line: “Carol the waitress, Simon the fag,” I learned some new Spanish words, one of which I should probably never use in polite conversations. It is not a very politically correct thing to say, but then again Melvin is not the kind of guy who gives two shits about political correctness. Therefore we can laugh about it, and I did.
The biggest irony about the movie is that despite being an irascible recluse who hates most people, Melvin is a best-selling author who is very good at writing from a woman’s point of view. When a receptionist at his publisher’s company reverently asks him his secret, his brutal answer is “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” (Fun fact: the receptionist is played by Julie Benz who would later star in the hit shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dexter.) He may have a lot of money and might be good at his job, but any man who behaves and talks like Melvin is bound to die alone.
Two incidents upset his situation in a major way. The first is when his artist neighbour Simon (Greg Kinnear) is brutally assaulted by one of his subjects. When no one volunteers to take care of Simon’s dog while he is recuperating in the hospital, Simon’s friend Frank (Cuba Gooding Jr.) volunteers Melvin under threat of physical pain, knowing full well Melvin is the one who threw the dog down the thrash chute. This greatly upsets Melvin since no one has been inside his apartment in years, let alone a dog who might soil his carpet.
The second incident is the absence of Melvin’s waitress Carol (Helen Hunt) from the restaurant where he eats every day. On top of everything Melvin is an obsessive compulsive who must eat at the same table every day, cut his food with his own utensils, and must be served by the same waitress, otherwise his world unravels. Of course Carol hates Melvin because of his behaviour and has better things to worry about than Melvin’s habits, mainly her son who is very sick and in need of money for his treatments.
These two plot points lead to some major character development for Melvin, as he develops affection for the dog much to his surprise, and pays for treatments for Carol’s son, much to her amazement. As the initially unlikable but funny Melvin, Nicholson is of course in top form having played many characters throughout his career who have done much worse things than being rude. Hunt rises to his level as a single mom who has to worry about paying bills, her son’s fragile health, and the realization she just might be falling for one of the most irritating people in all of New York City.
The film’s writers know any type of relationship with Melvin will be an uneasy one. A dinner scene between Melvin and Carol starts off badly, has a tremendous emotional uplift, but then crashes and burns. Yet given how the character started at the beginning we see that allowing people in his life, or even a tiny dog in his apartment, can make a world of difference. The message is obvious: be kind and good things could happen to you. The great cast, writing, and direction help sell this message, and it also doesn’t hurt that the dog is kind of cute.