Mothers Who Think: Worse than it ought to be

'As Good As It Gets' is more a horror film than a heartwarmer: one more pathetic male rescue fantasy about an emotionally constipated misfit who is saved by the love of a good woman.

By Sara Nelson

Published March 20, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Here's the story: A very good friend of yours, a single mother, tells you she just met A Guy. This is a fairly big deal for her, because she doesn't get out much -- she lives with her mother -- and because her son has chronic allergies that land him in the emergency room on a regular basis, and because she has an exhausting job as a coffee shop waitress. In short, she's too beaten down to have much luck in the dating world.

So she's pretty excited. "He's a writer," she tells you. "And he even makes money! Well, OK, he's a little bit older than I am, but hey, what's age anyway? Besides, he's only got about three dog years on me. And speaking of dogs, well, he hates them, and even -- I heard -- tried to put his gay neighbor's puppy down a garbage chute. Well, OK, he's not so crazy about the gay neighbor, either, whom he has called a 'fudge packer,' among other things, but he only does that when he's really, really mad, like when this neighbor knocks on his door to ask if anyone has seen the missing puppy. He's a little off, I gotta admit, but then, who isn't? I mean, he has these weird and annoying little habits: He always brings his own silverware to the restaurant and, well, he has this thing about stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk. I just love a man with vulnerabilities, don't you?"

Judging from the theater grosses and Oscar nominations for "As Good As It Gets," of which the above is a plot summary, lots of Americans do. They see it as a heartwarming fairy tale about a high-functioning misfit who finally finds a lid for his very misshapen pot. And this, after all, is a time-honored, high-concept Hollywood tradition ("Nobody's Fool," "Up Close and Personal"): Old man meets woman young enough to be his daughter; old man loses woman (here, because he's a maniac who has somehow escaped institutionalization); young woman eventually comes to realize error of her ways and they live happily ever after.

For me, this film -- written and directed by James L. Brooks, and starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt -- was less a fairy tale than a horror flick: "Get out! Get out!" I wanted to shout as Hunt veered finally into Nicholson's arms. She couldn't have been less safe if she'd met up with Freddie Krueger on Elm Street.

But of course, this movie isn't about Helen Hunt's Carol. It's about Nicholson's Melvin: who he is, what he needs, what he wants. And of course there's a "happy ending" -- for him. Melvin finds himself with a warm, loving woman who, it has been shown, is beloved by all who know her. What does delightful Carol get? The privilege of waking up next to an emotionally constipated, often downright malicious man who will forever undercut his kinder thoughts with a kind of reflexive nastiness no amount of love can "cure."

Filmmaker Brooks has long been lauded as a guy who "writes women well," and I will say that his Holly Hunter character in "Broadcast News" was pretty realistic. But he makes some critical mistakes here, beginning with the scene in which Melvin makes a particularly nasty crack about Carol's sick son, something to the effect that the boy would be better off dead. What kind of mother would go out with him after that? And then there's the now-famous compliment scene, in which a tongue-tied Melvin finally avers that Carol "makes me want to be a better man." It's a great line, but one that any woman over the age of 20 would know the correct response to: "Good. So go be one, and then we'll talk about it."

Brooks and co-writer Marc Andrus don't give Hunt that line, though -- maybe for (unconscious) fear that, were she to utter it, the balance of the film would be disrupted. (Some of us would say that, in fact, the movie would then have some balance.) Sure, Carol wavers about her interest in Melvin, and a couple of times she actually does walk out on him. But there's never any doubt that she'll "succumb" to his questionable charms because ... well, because he needs her, and the only clear characteristic that Brooks establishes for Carol -- through her intensive mothering, her big-sisterly way with co-workers and her immediate befriending of the wounded gay artist (played by Greg Kinnear) -- is that she needs to be needed. Besides, thanks to an aborted love scene early in the movie, we're meant to understand that Carol doesn't really have any other options and she should be damn grateful to find a guy who wants her to be his helpmeet.

I don't care how many tickets he sells, or how many Oscars he takes home, there's nothing new or innovative or charming about Brooks' film, even considering the occasionally funny dialogue and a few contemporary offbeat characters. It's the same-old same-old male rescue fantasy: Ultimate bad boy meets perfect woman/mommy savior. This is as good as it gets? With talents like Nicholson, Hunt and Brooks involved, I'd say it's worse than it oughta be.

Sara Nelson

Sara Nelson writes a book column for Glamour.

MORE FROM Sara Nelson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------