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NewCityNet Film Tip of the Week

By Ray Pride

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  James L. Brooks' queasy, uneasy, accomplished "As Good As It Gets" is filled with belly-laughs that make you itch. While it would be easy to call Brooks' mix of sentiment and brainy shtick an elevated form of sitcom, it would also be selling the work short. "Sitcom" is pervasive enough as a form of representation, or dramatic shorthand, but on television, the pejorative is usually applied to the kind of witless comedy where someone is always the butt of the joke, with the laughter always at someone's expense. "As Good As It Gets" is a more slippery animal. Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, a successful Manhattan writer of romance novels who's afflicted with an unspecified condition, a kind of emotional Tourette's--he'll do anything. Nicholson gets to bray and ripple some of the most indecorous abuse heard outside of the kind of redneck roles someone might hire Billy Bob Thornton for. Melvin is an obsessive-compulsive, a neat freak who goes so far as to keep different colors of M&Ms in separate glass canisters near his stacks of multiple-colored papers on which he prints his emotionally phony manuscripts. Everything must be on Melvin time. Whether it's the gay neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear, mostly pretty good) or Carol, the waitress at his breakfast haunt (Helen Hunt, at once sturdy and winsome) with the ill son who keeps her up late at night, they reach out to or recoil from Melvin at the risk of his substantial gift for the verbal blitz. Nicholson telegraphs Melvin's discomfort-shy-of-insanity with exquisite body language, at once leonine and nuts, like his old friend John Huston in his late acting roles. (Nicholson's brow lifts noticeably even when he's in secondary focus.) Who else acting today could make something bitter, hilarious and troubling of a line like, "People who are talking metaphors oughta shampoo my crotch!" In its simplest reduction, "As Good As It Gets" is about finding appropriate ways of giving and receiving love, and the tentativeness of Brooks and co-writer Mark Andrus' complications is what makes the effects so funny and so memorable. The movie never plays saccharine or cheap, although the comedy works its way through sentiment and cute animals and rapid-fire evolution of characters who begin as types. The editing is intriguingly jumpy, showing the amount of concentration Brooks and company brought to the melding of moods and styles of comedy, and there is a single shot that sings to the heavens, a majestic moment like an Edward Hopper canvas in motion, with cinematographer John Bailey placing a supernally lit Brooklyn night bus pushing through rain atop a bridge and into Manhattan. It's the only moment of true visual grace--not counting a handful of priceless sight gags I won't repeat--but there are moments of behavioral grace to savor.

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