DON'T CONFUSE THE world depicted in James L. Brooks' new film, "As Good as It Gets," with the real world, although it's much closer to it than Hollywood usually comes. Instead, it's an almost-convincing imaginary universe, one where Brooks has worked for a long time, in which the virtuous are rewarded, the wicked are revealed to be the wounded and the wounded (which is to say everybody) are healed by love. Look to this comic romance for guidance on living in the real world and you'll come away spouting platitudes. Appreciate it instead as an exceedingly well-crafted fairy tale, alive with eccentric, overdrawn Dickensian characters and irresistibly wholehearted sentiment, and you'll enjoy perhaps the most accomplished and satisfying work of Brooks' career as a middlebrow entertainer.
I'm not being condescending; for a man who has directed only four movies (one of them the disastrous musical flop "I'll Do Anything"), Brooks is an extraordinarily important figure in the shaping of American popular culture. From "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to "Taxi" to "The Simpsons" (all of which he helped create), he has worked on what you might call the edge of the middle, using the comic/sentimental mode to mass market ideas and themes that a few years earlier would have seemed alternative or experimental.
"As Good as It Gets" is no exception to this pattern. Brooks and co-writer Mark Andrus have taken the radical queer demand for "representation," circa 1993, and delivered a nontraditional family-values film for the holiday-multiplex crowd. Their main characters are an obsessive-compulsive schizophrenic (Jack Nicholson), the gay artist next door (Greg Kinnear) and a working-class single mom (Helen Hunt); the winsome, improbable tale of how they find each other is about as subversive as a Christmas episode of "The Waltons." Like Brooks' 1983 smash weeper "Terms of Endearment," this is precisely the kind of movie where mainstream critics and mainstream audiences meet. If some or all of the principals here don't have statuettes on the mantelpiece in March, I'll be shocked.
Every fairy tale needs an impossibly pure heroine, and this one has Carol, the struggling Brooklyn waitress played by Hunt. I guess Carol isn't actually a virgin, since she's got a preadolescent son who's always wheezing asthmatically or barfing into wastebaskets in the background, but you wouldn't know it from her behavior. Carol is equal parts Cinderella -- she can't get dates to stay overnight, what with the spit-up on her dress and her Nosy Parker mother in the next room -- and the princess who screws up her courage to kiss the ugliest frog in the pond.
Hunt isn't a showy actress, but she does a magnificent job of conveying the short-tempered, hollow-eyed exhaustion of someone whose life is devoured by endless varieties of petty exasperation: big-city commuting, bosses and customers, emergency rooms and HMOs. It's worth noting that most poor people in Brooklyn don't look like Hunt (and I don't mean just in terms of skin color), but Brooks' earnest effort to dramatize the health-care crisis should earn him a political indulgence or two. Besides, any role that helps pry Hunt free from the loathsome Paul Reiser and "Mad About You" is doing the world a service.
Carol's frog is, of course, Nicholson, as Melvin, a misanthropic Greenwich Village novelist with Howard Hughes-like compulsions: He throws away pairs of gloves and bars of soap after one use; he can't step on the cracks in the sidewalk; he brings plastic picnicware to restaurants. More than that, he's a bigoted asshole who jams his gay neighbor's rag-mop Pomeranian down the garbage chute before showing up for his regular meal at Carol's restaurant and announcing, "There are Jews at my table."
Brooks' and Nicholson's conjuring trick here is to take Melvin right to the edge of being irredeemable -- the artist neighbor quite justifiably calls him "an absolute horror of a human being" -- before giving him a chance at heroism. In a sense, they're cheating. We're inescapably reminded of Nicholson's role in "Terms of Endearment"; we know what boundless oceans of emotion lie behind the vulpine smile, the arched brows, the evil wisecracks. As compelling as Nicholson is in dragging Melvin, twitching and writhing, back toward human society, the underlying premise is a bit spurious. Can all hatred really be cured through cuddling and chemicals? If Jesse Helms got laid and ingested the right combination of pharmaceuticals, would he end up rooming with RuPaul?
Simon, the gay artist-next-door, could easily have been just a plot device -- the fairy godmother who brings the lovers together -- which makes Kinnear's nuanced, fearless performance all the more impressive. There's no vestige of his smirky TV-host persona here: Simon is captivatingly real, from his diction to his sly half-smile to his lavender shirts. He's tough-minded, independent and resilient, but also vain and, yes, a bit of a prima donna. After Simon is brutally beaten by a gang of street thugs (headed by Skeet Ulrich) who invade his apartment, Melvin is browbeaten by Simon's art dealer (Cuba Gooding Jr., in a brief but memorably detailed performance) into caring for the same Pomeranian he tried to murder in the film's first scene. You guessed it -- the lovable pup not only awakens Melvin's squishier impulses, but makes Carol see him for the first time as something besides the wacko creep with the plastic forks.
In no time, Melvin is taking his pills, bringing Simon soup, paying for Carol's kid's medical expenses and leading the trio on a fateful road trip to Baltimore, where the bankrupt Simon needs to ask his estranged parents for money. (Melvin growls that Carol has to come along lest Simon try to slip him "the stiff one-eye.") Brooks has always had a remarkable sense for the genuine look and feel of Middle America, and he sets Melvin and Carol's climactic dinner date -- a masterfully comic scene -- in one of those pompous yet bland "fine dining" establishments that are thronged with anxious suburban pairings on Friday nights.
The date goes atrociously; no fairy tale worth its salt is going to give us a happy ending without a false bad one first. But now that the princess has kissed the frog, she and we and godmother Simon know she can't get him out of her system. Back in her Brooklyn brownstone, Carol stands in the stairwell and laments out loud, "Why can't I have a normal boyfriend?" Her mother sticks her head out to say, "That's what everyone wants, dear. It doesn't exist." As morals go, you could do a lot worse.