As Good As It Gets (1997) is that rare film that actually is, as good as it gets. As one of a handful of significantly successful romantic comedies of the 1990s, this movie defies the boundaries of its genre; purposefully so and unlike others before and since, gets awfully close to enjoyable for those men who find romantic comedies not their cup of tea. Despite wikipedia’s definition of the romantic comedy, or because of it, these films are often referred to as Rom Com or Romcom, and described as “films with light-hearted humorous plotlines, centered on romantic ideals such as a true love able to surmount most obstacles.” I can’t argue with that but I think you’ll find that there is a great deal more at work in this genre than such an over simplification. Sure, there are films that dare not breach such narrow parameters and yet are successful, at least in box office receipts. Most of these films involve a romantic element that is the driving force between two people, often in pursuit of one another or who are often separated and must overcome great obstacles in order to be together, but what is truly at the core of this genre and dare I say all films, is the emotional investment we the audience establish with the characters.
The films that get it right contain well-defined, accessible characters that possess a range of emotions and are capable of navigating plausible, if not decisively difficult courses, all for the sake of love – to find love or prove their love or secure their love. It is with the characters that we bond and follow, characters who make us smile or dare us as much or more so to join them on their journey. In French Kiss, when Kate (Meg Ryan) flies to France in pursuit of the so-called love of her life and in the process becomes the unwitting accomplish to Luc Teyssier’s (Kevin Kline) smuggling escapade, we are interested for her naivety and for his cunning, but ultimately we’re hopeful that this peculiar yet tangible relationship go somewhere, will be sustainable somehow. How they will find one another through the course of the story and the frequently obvious plot devices, at this point, is irrelevant. It is amazing how much we can forgive a film for stumbling once we’ve accepted the characters and invest in them.
Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) though sharply witty and clever, often crass but to the point, is obviously and easily despicable. Yet we find something in him that is amusing, albeit self-serving and ill-mannered, even after he puts the tiny dog down a garbage chute. We care about Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) because who hasn’t had a bad job and had to put up with bad people, all the while dealing with your own life issues when you get home. And while Simon Bishop (Greg Kinear) is a seemingly lofty and privileged artist, and deep down we’re partly content to see him brought down to street level, we feel for him afterwards and care about how he is going to get his life back in order. We want him to get back on his feet and paint again just as much as we want him to reconnect with his estranged parents. All of these varying shades of gray are what bind us together, they are our connected and disconnected histories and each in one way or another endear us. This is the very reason why we end up rooting for Melvin to make the right moves with Carrol. Layers; in the layers of films like As Good As It Gets are the very best and worst characters we know and through them we see ourselves.
The very best films find things that exist in each one of us, part of our collective dreams and history, parts of things we are proud of and ashamed of and they populate interesting, imaginary characters who we live vicariously through. Who doesn’t want Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt to get together? When she asks him to give her a compliment at the restaurant toward the end of the movie, she demands one or she is going to walk out on him. After a moment he turns to her and delivers one of the most famous lines in a romantic comedy of recent memory: “You make me want to be a better man.” Of course he ruins it right after that but it’s OK because that’s probably what we would have done. He’s a hero’s hero, he accomplishes what we want to or can’t but he also does it in a believable, flawed and imperfect way. We are all flawed and deep down when we’re watching movies we want to watch flawed characters in flawed stories too because we can relate to them. People who choose to watch a romantic comedy aren’t trying to escape the confines of their worlds any more than they want to be reminded of what is missing or how they have failed. People who watch romantic comedies are looking for bits and pieces of themselves, the funny bits and the sad ones too; contained within ordinary and not so ordinary stories of momentary glimpses of how it is to live and breathe, how to make mistakes and feel bad right along side triumph and hope and happiness however short-lived.
The best romantic comedies, like As Good As It Gets, encompass a great deal more than the sum of their parts. We want one Melvin Udall to help his gay neighbor, Simon, and to be forced to care for the very same critter he tried to dispose of down the garbage chute. The beauty of a story like this, of a film with such a loathsome protagonist is that slowly, eventually, we do care about a man who could do such a thing and that for all the money in the world is the magic of cinema. When Helen Hunt, arms filled with dirty dishes from busing tables, unfurls the tattered note she toiled over for hours, the thank you she prepared for Melvin after he helped her son, we find pause in the humanity of the moment and wonder how it was we were ever so caught up in our own lives that we did not take notice the last time someone was kind to us or went out of their way to lend us a hand when we needed it the most. There are not enough notes like this written these days. Not nearly enough notes.
This isn’t a movie review in the traditional sense because there is hardly a thing I could write that hasn’t already been written, shared, and discussed about this truly touching and heartfelt film. I might write about the 25 award nominations and the 23 wins, including Oscars for Nicholson, and Hunt, that James L. Brooks was nominated for a Director’s Guild of America Award, or to the Golden Globes and SAG awards – all well deserving but awards don’t make a movie what it is. Awards happen later, after the film has been completed and the filmmakers have moved on to other projects. Awards are little reminders that for a moment, a creative thing happened and in this infinitesimal instance in history, it was something special.