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Gambit Weekly "As Good As It Gets"; "Titanic"

By Rick Barton

JANUARY 12, 1998: 

FILM: As Good as It Gets
STARRING: Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt
DIRECTOR: James L. Brooks
WHERE: Wide release

James L. Brooks' As Good as It Gets kicks off with a nastily hilarious bang. Irascible New Yorker Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) spies his neighbor's dog about to urinate in the hall of their luxury highrise apartment building. When he can't entice the pooch into the elevator, Melvin grabs the dog and throws him down the trash chute. This opening sequence will deeply offend members of PETA and leave everybody else howling. What follows will keep you laughing until suddenly those tears in your eyes derive from the picture's blindside attack of the heart. Hollywood doesn't make a romantic comedy any better than this one.

Adapted by director Brooks and Mark Andrus from Andrus' original script, As Good as It Gets tells the story of three people caught in a maelstrom of ill will that subtly turns into a love fest. Melvin is a misanthropic romance writer. He makes millions but lives a life of cranky isolation. Melvin suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and takes mean pleasure in saying the rudest things to anyone and everyone he encounters. He particularly detests neighbor Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), owner of the offending dog, Verdell (Jill). Simon is a sensitive gay painter, and Melvin squanders no opportunity to insult Simon's lifestyle and art.

Melvin's only chosen interaction with other people comes when he dines at a restaurant near his apartment. The restaurant's staff detests him, and only one waitress, Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), will consent to serve him. Melvin doesn't spare Carol any more than anyone else, but she has learned how to handle him, a skill Melvin himself recognizes and admires. Carol is a world-weary single mom who lives in a tiny apartment with her ailing son, Spencer (Jesse James). And when Spencer's illness requires Carol to quit her job, Melvin is provoked to an act of generosity for all the wrong reasons. Meanwhile, Simon is viciously beaten by burglars, and Melvin is forced to help him, too, though not without considerable bitching.

Carol (Helen Hunt) gets through to Melvin (Jack Nicholson) in James L. Brooks' As Good as It Gets
The performances in this movie are exceptional. Comedian Kinnear, who made such an auspicious debut in Sabrina, here proves himself no one-role wonder. He gives Simon's sexuality a comedic spin but also reveals the character's humanity and decency. Hunt brings her trademark naturalness to the table with terrific effect. Her Carol is no glamourpuss, but she's still sexy as all get-out. And Nicholson is in top form. The filmmakers state that the role was not written with him specifically in mind, but no other actor could conceivably be as effective in the role. Nobody does nutty better, and Nicholson pulls off the lovable just as well -- and without sacrificing his character's quirky core. Moreover, those wild eyes and marauding eyebrows made me laugh even when nothing much was going on.

But the suppleness of Andrus and Brooks' screenplay is the great strength of As Good as It Gets. The story bends itself around into odd positions with a sensuous grace. The comedic writing is strong from beginning to end. The jokes are routinely politically incorrect and often downright mean, but that doesn't stop us from laughing. And we forgive ourselves because we know we're supposed to disapprove of Melvin, who gets off most of the film's one-liners.

But funny as this material is, it's also plenty smart about human psychology. Carol's relationship with her mother (Shirley Knight) is developed with unusual insight. And Carol's self-contempt about feeling bad shows a canny understanding of how people make things even worse for themselves than they need be. The picture also nicely illustrates how good deeds can be good even when they're executed for selfish reasons. At first, Melvin really only wants to exploit Carol, but that doesn't mean the help he provides her isn't genuine and life-altering. Best of all, the picture keeps sneaking up on you with its sentiment. When Carol challenges Melvin to pay her a compliment, he comes up with, "You make me want to be a better man," and it hits us like the punch Muhammad Ali used to floor Sonny Liston. We don't see it coming, and it absolutely knocks us out. The same can be said for the whole picture. I seldom feel this way after a movie, but this one was so freshly entertaining, I wanted to stand and applaud.

FILM: Titanic
STARRING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet
DIRECTOR: James Cameron
WHERE: Wide release

All the early press on James Cameron's Titanic focused on the director's obsessive, megalomaniacal behavior, which resulted in the film's unprecedented $200 million price tag. Having seen the three-hour, twenty-minute finished product, I can attest to the picture's wretched excess. This movie is way longer than necessary and foolishly wasteful. At times it is also gratingly dumb. But all that said, you ought to go see Titanic. It's chock full of hokum, but it delivers an experience you can only get at the movies.

Set against the backdrop of the well-known 1912 maiden-voyage sinking of the world's largest and most luxurious ocean liner, Titanic is a love story across the mine field of class. Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a 17-year-old girl of the American ruling class. She is unhappily engaged to the snobbish and domineering Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), heir to a vast fortune. Rose chafes in the relationship, but her conniving mother, Ruth (Frances Fischer), insists that she see it through. The Bukaters' own resources have been devastated by the death of Rose's father. The Bukaters and Hockley board the Titanic as first class passengers, of course. Down in the bowels of steerage, meanwhile, is Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a vagabond American painter who has traveled about the world doing odd jobs and won his Titanic ticket in a card game. Rose has the world at her fingertips and knows nothing of it. Jack has seen the world without a penny in his pocket. Their meeting produces amour the way stone and flint produce fire.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet dash for the deck in Titanic
The critic in me is required to tell you how irksome this picture often proves itself. Cameron spent millions filming the wreck of the Titanic on the North Atlantic floor and used it to fashion a contemporary frame story about treasure hunters. The frame does produce a graceful performance by Gloria Stuart as the 101-year-old Rose, but it's not really necessary and serves mainly to add unwanted length. In the central story, Cameron introduces such characters as Jack's pal Fabrizio De Rossi (Danny Nucci) for the sole purpose of killing them at the end. Kathy Bates is employed as Molly Brown, but her character doesn't really have anything to do except wait to board a lifeboat. Meanwhile, Cal is rendered such an unalloyed villain, he might as well have grown a mustache so he could twist its ends. The story would have been much more interesting had Cal possessed a few redeeming qualities.

Mostly, though, Titanic irritates because Cameron just can't let loose of hoary, adventure-movie storytelling tactics. It's not enough that the ship is sinking; he's got to get Jack arrested and handcuffed to a pipe on a lower deck. Then he's got to send Rose after her lover through hallways filling with water. And even after Rose has set Jack free, Cameron has to see them trapped at gated portals not once but twice. And if that's not enough, the director sends a murderous Cal after them, shooting wildly as the lovers slosh from deck to deck. It's so ridiculous you want to scream.

Even worse, Cameron plays stupidly loose with the facts of a disaster this immense. No one could survive what Rose and Jack do as they ride the stern into the sea. It's the equivalent of an airplane passenger living through a crash by jumping off just before the plane hits the ground. And where's that power plant that keeps the Titanic electricity on even after the boat has broken in half? And why doesn't the icy sea water bother Rose in the ship's hallways? And why doesn't Jack register the shock of the cold when he's sucked underwater? And so forth and so on.

And still this picture is actually worth it. The grandeur of the production is narcotic. Cameron may be a madman, but he's an artist in his own low-rent way. His shots of the giant pistons in the Titanic's engine room recall the factory footage in Chaplin's Modern Times and purposely serve to remind us that people sweated and took risks to make the mammoth ship move. Elsewhere, Cameron masterfully matches footage taken along the sunken Titanic's promenade with those on his own 90 percent-scale replica. The effect is haunting. And frankly, clumsily overdone as it is, the romance works too -- not the Cal triangle part, but the relationship between Jack and Rose. Winslet is a little shaky at the start, but her performance gets better over the three-plus hours. And DiCaprio nails Jack from the start. He's terrific. An actor who has specialized in playing troubled and damaged characters, he chucks all the mannerisms and plays a winning romantic lead straight up. He makes you believe Jack's feelings for Rose, and together in the sketching scene, he and Winslet produce as erotically charged a moment as you'll find in cinema this year.

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