When the dust settles on the 20th and 21st centuries, it should be clear that James L. Brooks was quite a bit less than a master filmmaker, but quite a bit more than an able-minded engineer who happened to be part of the right projects at the right times. If nothing else, he represents a challenge to rugged-individualist-exalting director worship, since he was not only the architect of his own, everlasting meal ticket, but also had an incalculable impact on what the American entertainment factory considers good work, worthy of emulation. One of our last remaining major links to the salad days of classic television (he won his first of 18 Emmy awards in 1971, for co-writing an episode from The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s first season), Brooks found a comfortable spot in the upper stratosphere of ’80s pop cinema with Terms of Endearment, the blockbuster dramedy that still holds iconic value for so many participants, for so many reasons. In the wake of that juggernaut, he hasn’t really been up to much, besides producing two dozen seasons of The Simpsons, mentoring Wes Anderson, and making strange hybrids of the pro forma Hollywood rom-com and Dick Van Dyke Show-honoring classicism at a rate of approximately one every other presidential election.
The third post-Terms of Endearment feature, three years after the notorious implosion of I’ll Do Anything, carried the anonymous-sounding title As Good As It Gets. Strong reviews and an appealing cast propelled it to 1997’s top 10 highest-grossing films, as well as two surprising Academy Awards for the leading man and lady; surprising, not because they were unworthy, but because Helen Hunt didn’t seem “the type,” and Jack seemed to have 11 Oscars at home already. Neither boffo box office nor accolades, however, would seem to suggest that anybody knew what they were dealing with, and the intervening years have done little to decrypt this strange, Brooksian confection.
Armed with sitcom wisdom via hallowed eons of experience, Brooks is keenly aware that, before the reign of Adam Sandler and his progeny, who value stupidity and shock value above all else, comedies got their juice from the frisson between meticulously placed layers, primarily layers of expectation and revelation. Brooks knows variations on setup-payoff like Stephen Sondheim knows words that rhyme with “love,” as we see as early as the first frames of As Good As It Gets: Rather than introduce his characters the usual way, he drops the audience into their world, as if we’re starting with the second episode of the second season. Melvin (Nicholson) is already a blight on his favorite West Village diner, as indicated by Carol’s (Hunt) weary familiarity and a great deep-field bit where another waitress performs an about-face rather than risk sharing oxygen with the OCD-afflicted author.
Brooks, who co-wrote the script with Mark Andrus (whose other credentials are less auspicious), lines up the story’s dominoes to begin falling at the very moment we begin looking at them, as each relationship reaches a gotta-give, change-or-die crisis point. Finally, if momentarily, paralyzed by being made aware of his own callous insensitivity, Melvin is infected with the virus of actually having to give a shit about something, anything, while all around him opportunities abound. His gay artist neighbor, Simon (Greg Kinnear), suffers a brutal attack at the hands of burglars, leaving his insanely adorable Brussels Griffon, Verdell, in Melvin’s charge. On a broad scale, Melvin undergoes nothing more novel than a redemption arc, but Brooks and Andrus maintain the balance between sweetness and friction by fortifying, rather than weakening, the walls that each character has built to protect himself or herself from intrusion.
While Nicholson, lumbering titan that he is, builds the largest part of his performance around choice lines of dialogue (too many even to begin quoting), it’s Hunt who emerges as the film’s MVP. Many of the supporting players are used for reverse-shot effects, but Hunt makes her exasperated waitress Carol into a storm cloud of tenderness and ferocity, with countless, exquisite, inimitable line readings, such as when she shouts at Harold Ramis, “Why are you telling me your name?”
Although at times over-reliant on setting up minor comic caricatures for an easy pratfall (Simon’s upturned nose after he tells Melvin, “You don’t care about anything,” is one of the only sour notes in an otherwise lovely performance), Brooks and Andrus construct a form of crystalline elegance out of rudimentary materials. There’s nothing new about where the film ends up, but the stations that line the way are charged with well-wrought comic verve. Providing limitless, renewable energy is the simple, supple tension between irresistible force (Melvin’s desire to improve) and immovable object (Melvin’s obstinate hostility). And yet, it’s never quite that simple: The film has a restless quality of experimentation, as Brooks pushes a scene to see what “too far” means in terms of Melvin’s casual brutality, pushes him down, then lets him get back on the horse, only infinitesimally less of a prick than he was a moment ago. As Good As It Gets doesn’t savor the redemptive catharsis—fears it, in fact, and revels in the comic possibilities of that fear, even to the point of casting doubt on the idea that Carol or Melvin should be worthy of one another’s grace. At some point, the story settles into the inertia of script resolution, another case of a near-great movie that isn’t quite sure how to end without reading the manual. It’s a gentle letdown, following a film that’s rich in neurotic fervor, the romantic daydream of an exposed nerve.
Given the continuing developments in camera technology, as well as the wear and tear of 15 post-theatrical years, it might not be fair to compare As Good As It Gets to the visually resplendent How Do You Know, especially since the latter was lensed by virtuoso cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, but even taken on its own terms, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray hardly seems able to cash the check written by the 1997 comedy’s title. This isn’t as good as it gets. How do I know? Grain seems true overall, but the tones seem maladjusted and pallid, as if overcome by a vague whiff of greenish swamp gas, or some single-mom’s kid’s mystery ailment. Skin tones are erratic, while bright and dark areas of the screen have an oozing, suppressive quality that affects everything around them. It just doesn’t seem like anybody did anything with the materials, short of feeding them through a telecine on one end and ejecting Blu-ray discs from the other. There’s even some dust and dirt—an unspeakable oversight. The slightly more satisfactory DTS-HD track seems to red-line on higher levels, like when a character expresses him- or herself through blunt exasperation; in other words, lots of times.
Just a trailer and an isolated score track.
Given that this was one of 1997’s in-the-shadow-of-Titanic mainstays, it’s a little disturbing that James L. Brooks’s double-Oscar-winning comedy should get what amounts to a home-video brush-off: picture and sound just a dog hair this side of satisfactory, and just this side of zero in terms of supplements.