Tuesday, March 17, 2020

As Germ-Ridden As It Gets : Jack Nicholson Finds Love

Now that we’re all compulsively washing our hands, Jack Nicholson’s behavior in the James L. Brooks romantic comedy As Good as it Gets, doesn’t seem all that strange.. Nicholson, playing Melvin Udall, is established as a man in the throes of obsessive compulsive disorder. Early in the film, we see him (just after he’s thrown a neighbor’s fluffy little dog down a trash chute) dive into his medicine cabinet, which is filled top to bottom with boxes of serious-looking hand soap. He tears open one box, lathers up, and thoroughly scrubs his digits. After which he tosses the barely used bar of soap into the trash.

Melvin has other tics too. He has a thing about the number five. He walks down Manhattan streets in strange patterns, apparently avoiding stepping on cracks. He eats daily at his favorite table at his favorite diner, where his favorite waitress (the acerbic Carol) tolerates his insistence on bringing his own disposal plastic utensils. So obsessed is he with germs that he’d rather go out and buy a sports jacket than borrow the one a snooty restaurant has on hand for underdressed patrons. These days I can’t blame him for worrying. Cooties? COVID-19?

If Milton’s germaphobia strikes home these days, so does the dilemma faced by Carol (played by Helen Hunt in an Oscar-winning performance). She has a young son with a serious asthma condition that leads to frequent ER visits, but her bare-bones HMO has made no real progress in addressing his medical issues. It’s not until the well-heeled Melvin steps in that she has access to a specialist who can take steps toward actually treating young Spence’s illness. It’s a clear case of income inequality, and I’m certain Bernie Sanders would have something to say about the fact that the hard-working Carol lacks the resources that Melvin can take for granted.

Melvin has made his money as the prolific author of romance novels. Which is not to imply that he has high regard for his readers. When an adoring secretary in his publisher’s office dares to ask how he creates the heroines she loves, he shoots her down with a blunt reply: “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” This is not a chap, obviously, who is good at relationships in the real world.

But at the heart of this film is an insistence that first impressions are not always accurate, and that there’s more to people than their outward appearance might suggest. Greg Kinnear plays (nicely) Melvin’s neighbor, Simon, who’s the owner of the little dog as well as a budding artist. Melvin has easily sussed out that Simon is gay, and he assaults his neighbor with slurs that would probably not be tolerated today in a movie rated PG-13. Eventually, though, the two become friends, and Simon helps pave the way for Melvin’s hard-earned happy ending. There’s also Cuba Gooding Jr., hilarious as always as an art dealer and a gentleman, but one who knows how to keep Melvin in line by insinuating his scary ghetto roots. Then there’s Carol, a blue-collar drudge who manages to be simultaneously smart, sardonic, wary of pain, and very very capable of love. And finally there’s Melvin himself, contemptuous of the sentimental fans of his writing, but underneath it all someone who’s fully ready to love and be loved. The film doesn’t laugh off his OCD issues, but when the chips are down this is a man who is able to say just the right thing: “You make me want to be a better man.”

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