"As Good As It Gets" is a film that is so highly acclaimed that it is almost impossible to watch it without bias. The film features Jack Nicholson in yet another one of his Academy-Award-winning roles, giving one of the most vibrant performances of his life, and Helen Hunt in a role that earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. An endless array of nominations and awards make it clear that this is a special film. For that reason, I was quite curious to see this film for myself, to see what the "laudatio" is about, and whether I believe it’s worthy of these honors. After watching the film on this spectacular DVD release from Columbia TriStar Home Video, I have to admit that it’s a very intimate, grand, film that casts a certain inescapable charm on the viewer. This film certainly achieves a level of intimacy where we all find a little bit of ourselves in one or more of the characters portrayed, and it invites us to reflect on ourselves. On the other hand, it is such a well-done and polished production that it exhibits the art of film-making at its peak.
Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is an eccentric fiction writer in Manhattan. A control freak and obsessive-compulsive sourpuss, he drives his neighbors in the condo complex crazy with his selfish, cruel attitude. Everything in Melvin’s life has its place and order. There is no room for variances, flexibility, or change. His complete existence consists of a series of repetitive routines, all of which he practices with mind numbing precision day in and day out. He has his favorite restaurant where he has lunch every day, and in case someone has taken "his" table, he raises hell until they leave. He even brings his own plasticware to eat with, and every day he orders exactly the same meal with the same waitress, one Carol Conelly (Helen Hunt).
Melvin doesn’t register that life goes on around him without him. Everything is focused and centered on himself, and everyone he comes into contact with has to live within that pattern. One day, Melvin enters "his" restaurant for lunch when he finds out that "his" waitress is not working that day. He goes off to Carol’s home, begging her to come back to work immediately and fix lunch for him. Needless to say, Melvin is a poor, egocentric character.
When the rich writer finds out that Carol’s son is suffering from serious asthma attacks, he decides to support her and pays the boy’s complete treatment through one of the city’s most expensive doctors. Not for the kid’s sake however, but only so that Carol can go back to work and serve him lunch as she always did before. Touched by Melvin’s generosity, Carol starts to pry at the overly obnoxious, impolite writer, and soon discovers that there is a soft core within the hard, manic shell. But before she manages to reach this part of Melvin, he again drives her away with his neurosis. One day, Melvin’s neighbor is attacked and hospitalized, and Melvin finds himself taking care of the man’s dog in the interim an animal he has always despised to the bone.
Within days, the writer is completely in love with the little dog and takes yet another step towards becoming an eligible part of human society. Still, he has a long way to go, and for someone who holds change as his worst enemy, this way becomes torture.
As you can tell from this brief synopsis, this is a story with an interesting twist. Although the premise seems simple at first, the way the plot plays with Melvin and creates a loveable, compelling, and completely obnoxious character is what makes this film so special. Jack Nicholson can pull all the registers in this film and play off all his facets and skills. One moment he is a dark, ominously threatening, powerful man who is ready to tear his neighbor to pieces, and the next moment he is a helpless and sick man on the verge of breaking. Every emotion a person like Melvin could possibly go through is represented in this film, and Jack Nicholson shines in his portrayal of all these nuances of human nature. The same is true for Helen Hunt, who throws in an incredibly personal and touching performance as a mother whose top priority is her child’s well-being, although in what is probably the only weakness in the otherwise superb and delicate script, the child leaves the overall picture halfway through the film. Every minute you feel her being torn between liking and despising the man who turns her life around with the snap of his fingers. Nicholson and Hunt have a strong chemistry in this movie that is clearly "as good as it gets" and immediately brings classic couples such as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman to mind. Somehow the whole film has a magical feeling to it. The story feels fresh and is exceedingly well paced, without ever letting go of the viewer’s attention. James Brooks’ stylish direction and the complete production design is so atmospheric and truthful, it practically breathes Manhattan. The acting is so good that it easily elevates the film over any other comedy we have seen in theaters this year, making the film’s substantial running length some of the most enjoyable and entertaining 139 minutes in cinema.
Columbia TriStar Home Video has released "As Good As It Gets" on a double-sided disc, containing both an anamorphic widescreen transfer and a pan&scan version of the film. The widescreen version restores the film’s original theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio and both transfers are excellent in sharpness and the level of detail they exhibit. The film transfer is clean with sharp edges and no noise. Colors are extremely natural with solid, deep blacks and plenty of detail in the shadows and dark areas. No signs of chroma noise or pixelation are found in this beautiful transfer.
"As Good As It Gets" features a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital soundtrack that is oftentimes bustling with activity. It nicely reproduces the big city activity with very good spatial integration, breathing life in the ambient soundtrack. The film is also carried through Hans Zimmer’s emotional music score that nicely reflects the subtle changes in emotions the story creates, without giving away hints. The disc also contains a commentary track with director James Brooks, Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear that is both amusing and interesting, and fills in quite a bit of background on this romantic comedy.
Of course, when I started watching "As Good As It Gets", expectations were extremely high. I had seen the Oscar and Golden Globe Awards and knew about the stir the film caused. Never did I expect a film that was so tight and well done, however. Even with my guard up, the film caught me completely by surprise and I enjoyed every single minute of it. Perhaps what impresses me the most about it is that the film is neither dark nor negative. There is no "ultimate bad guy", there is no killing and there is no sinister atmosphere anywhere in this film, although the main issue the film deals with is of a rather serious nature. It makes for a very relaxing experience while at the same time reminding us just how intimately vulnerable, intrinsically "original" and eccentric we all are. If you intend to buy only one disc in the next months, make sure it is this one. "As Good As It Gets" is a masterpiece and a heartfelt comedy without silly slapstick humor.