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Movie buffs and anyone else who has dabbled in film school know that movies are generally thought of as three "acts," structured much like classic stage plays. These acts serve the same purpose as they do on stage: exposition, build-up, climax, denouement. Most movies, especially the bad ones, follow the same disastrous pattern: a good first act, a boring second act and a third act that falls apart.

"As Good As It Gets" is a rare example of the opposite, a movie that almost falls apart in the beginning before hitting its stride about halfway through, ending in a perfectly wonderful black comedy. Jack Nicholson plays Melvin, a successful fiction writer so unappetizing in his obssessive-compulsivity that you spend the first hour praying he doesn't embarrass anyone else with his sociopathic dialogue ("There's JEWS at my table," etc.). Helen Hunt is the only waitress left in New York who will still serve him, and Greg Kinnear is his gay next-door-neighbor who is robbed, beaten and left incapacitated. How all three of these damaged souls get together is the movie's brilliance; the set-ups are flawless and natural, the dialogue infinitely quotable.

Hunt is solid as the long-suffering Carol, and of course Jack Nicholson has created another terrific, singular character for his canon. But the real surprise here is Greg Kinnear, who is fabulous as the artist Simon Bishop—his quirks, grimaces and emotional repertoire is the stuff of serious actors, not the ex-hosts of "Talk Soup." Like Cuba Gooding Jr. in "Jerry Maguire" (a movie that is the spiritual godfather of "As Good As It Gets"), Kinnear unwittingly threatens to steal the whole flick away from its superstar. With Skeet Ulrich, Harold Ramis and Cuba Gooding Jr. himself.

—Ian Williams

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© Copyright 2002 Ian Williams