Late to the Party: As Good As It Gets (1997)

I was not primed to like this movie or its protagonist. If there’s any trope that dates itself especially badly right now, it’s the “lovable asshole” archetype, the character we’re supposed to admire for being his authentic self even though his authentic self is a terrible thing to be. It doesn’t help that even though the basic premise — curmudgeon makes friends — only really requires Melvin to be an asshole in a generalized sense, he goes above and beyond the call of duty with racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny. 

What I didn’t expect was the ways in which the movie simultaneously does resonate with current concerns. It’s not just about a “lovable asshole,” it’s about an asshole working on himself. The movie clearly revels in some of the awful things Melvin gets to say, and a lot of them are said to side characters whose only purpose is to look offended while he walks away. But he isn’t fully the blithe anti-PC warrior. He’s not happy with how he is. The other major characters — Carol, Simon, and Frank — are all real people with problems of their own that have nothing to do with him. They don’t laugh off his shit, they get pissed, and they often get even. But those same people keep giving him another chance. I’m not sure the movie itself knows where it stands on this — I don’t mean morally, but structurally. It’s overlong and sort of lopsided, made up of Scenes with a capital S that stand on their own but aren’t always in service of a coherent story. There’s nothing wrong (certainly nothing unrealistic) with Melvin’s progress not being linear, but I don’t think the characters’ attitudes are always consistent with what’s come before.

I don’t have OCD. I do have depression and anxiety and somewhat subpar social skills and a lot of difficulty tolerating other people’s perfectly normal and harmless presence, and there were aspects of Melvin I really identified with. Mental illness doesn’t make someone a bigot, and it doesn’t make them the kind of person who goes out of their way to hurt others. But the movie does also show how it might be legitimately harder to do the decent thing when you’re fighting a battle no one knows about. I think it’s significant that the very last moment, Melvin’s happy ending, isn’t his kiss with Carol, but his realization that he’s been standing on a crack in the sidewalk and doesn’t care.

Some stuff I liked:

  • The scene where Melvin visits Simon and they sit on a bench together for all of thirty seconds and exchange descriptions of their respective mental anguish, and then Melvin says in all apparent earnestness, “I’m glad we did this! Good talk!” and leaves.
  • Yeardley Smith’s delivery of “Frank thought I should have notes so I did this right. Maintained focus, didn’t get emotional and tried not to TERRIFY you!… See? He’s right. I need the cards.”
  • Helen Hunt’s delivery of “I want your life for one minute where my big problem is someone offers me a free convertible so I can get out of this city.”
  • Greg Kinnear’s delivery of “It’s Carol, for you.”
  • This:

Other observations:

  • At the risk of being drummed out of the Avocado community, I think I would have cut the dog. It eats up a lot of time at the beginning and after that it pretty much just serves to provide comic relief that doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie’s tone.
  • Melvin never sees any of Simon’s sketches of Carol? Doesn’t that seem like a no-brainer?
  • On the other hand, credit where it’s due: when Melvin meets Carol’s son, I fully expected some kind of bullshit tough-love scene where he tells the kid he’s getting in the way of his mother’s happiness and needs to man up and… stop having asthma, I guess. That doesn’t happen.
  • The Hans Zimmer score is absolutely brutal. Twinkly-schmaltzy scores like this are the curse of the nineties. They make it so hard to engage with otherwise smart movies and TV.
  • How is this rated PG-13?