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Thursday, May 2, 2013

"As Good As It Gets" 1997 Jack Nicholson, or, Yes, I Used to Be a Liberal Who Demonized Straight, White Men

"As Good As It Gets" 1997 Bad Jack!
Good Jack!

I saw "As Good As It Gets" when it opened in 1997. I hated it. I wrote a scathing review that ran in a local paper.

I hadn't re-watched the film until just the other night.

I didn't hate it as much. I still saw everything I saw on the first viewing that made me hate the film, but I saw other features, as well. I saw Melvin's (Jack Nicholson) vulnerability and his eagerness to do the right thing. I saw that he really was, as old as he was, the best option for Carol (Helen Hunt) a much younger waitress.

I dug up my 1997 review of "As Good As It Gets" and was stunned to reread it. It reads like something someone I would now vilify would write. It is so … ack ack … liberal. Anti-white male. All rah rah about gay people and people of color. I'm still rah rah about gay people and people of color, but less annoyingly so, I hope. And I just can't relate to the white male bashing in this piece.

Ah, growing old. Teaches you so very much.

Anyway, here is my voice from the past:

Like Melvin, its obnoxious main character, "As Good As it Gets" wants very badly to be loved. The film plays to more special interest groups than a politician. But, like Melvin, AGAIG doesn't surrender any of its obnoxiousness to get love. Melvin, and the movie, gets to have its cake and eat it, too.

In spite of its Affirmative Action cast, "As Good As it Gets" is a fairy tale designed to comfort the anxieties and reward the appetites of a very specific target audience: nervous straight, white males.

In the old days we had fairy tales about frogs who turned into princes when kissed by the right princess. Such fairy tales comforted male anxieties about whether they could ever attract the girl of their dreams.

Today's movie audiences are too sophisticated to be taken in by the notion of magical frogs. Another symbol is needed for the qualities the main character fears will alienate him from the love he needs and wants. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, this film wants us to believe, has turned Melvin into a frog. The movie gambles that not enough people will know enough about Obsessive-compulsive disorder to find this plot device as implausible and objectionable as it really is.

The main character of AGAIG is a fantasy of a stereotypical white male who's been feeling a bit paranoid, lately. Accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia – suddenly minorities seem to be getting bigger and bigger pieces of the pie, leaving less and less for him.

Straight white men's feeling of being demonized is made a concrete image, not in frog identity, but in Obsessive-compulsive disorder. "I couldn't help it! I'm sick!" Melvin protests to his princess, a waitress. "Your kiss will save me," he says, "Because, for you, I want to be a better man. For you I'll take Prozac!"

Melvin's desire to be a better man sounds pretty good, doesn't it? But any such urge on his part is not the center of the movie. What is? A powerful, older, straight white male, in a series of scenes, publicly humiliating those who threaten his status. Nicholson's uncontested verbal attacks against fat women, "coloreds," "big-nosed Jews," Hispanic women, intellectual women, and "fudge packing" "fags" got lots of appreciative laughter in the theater where I viewed the film.

Cast with Melvin is a gay man who lives up to many vicious homophobic stereotypes. Simon is gay because his parents screwed up. Mom was too affectionate; dad too butch. Simon has no friends. What Simon really needs is a woman, and Melvin provides him with one. Melvin gives Carol, the waitress to Simon. It is the sight of this woman's naked body that brings AGAIG's gay male character back to life.

An older straight man like Melvin might feel uncomfortable when looking at the beautiful face of a young gay man like Simon. He might feel jealous because Simon's beauty exposes the decay in his own features; he might feel anxious because Simon's beauty might be attractive to a straight man uncomfortable with his own homoerotic impulses.

But the Melvins in the audience need never fear. Greg Kinnear, the actor playing Simon, is wonderfully beautiful – temporarily. The movie gives us a lengthy, entirely gratuitous scene lingering over the destruction of Simon's beauty. Simon's face is bashed, and then displayed, in a hospital room, swollen, red, stitched, destroyed.

Melvin's homophobic put-downs of "fudge packers" are not the script's only reminder to the audience of vilified sexual practices. In one scene, Melvin throws Simon's dog into a dumpster. After Simon and his dog are reunited, the dog eagerly kisses Simon on the mouth. A janitor is there to remind Simon that the dog, when in the dumpster, had been eating diapers full of shit.

Carol, the waitress, talks like a feminist, but, she is essentially incompetent. She is a failure at getting her son the medical attention he needs. She clings to this failure because smothering her son is the only emotional life she has.

While Jack Nicholson, as Melvin, at sixty, looks as though the flesh on his face is boiled and pounded once a day, Helen Hunt, playing the waitress Carol, is a luminous 34. There's no mistaking it: Melvin is the winner; Carol is the prize. Watching geezer Melvin paw babe Carol may have felt good for the older males in the audience, but I had to turn away.

Melvin wins Carol when he steps in and saves the day. In spite of the nasty things he says, he's a good guy at heart – really. Melvin rescues the gay man, who is bashed, not by straight fag bashers, but by other gay men. Melvin provides a doctor for Carol's son. Melvin can do these because he is good at the white male's work: making money. The stereotypical white male is vindicated and rewarded.

Would AGAIG have been a better movie if it had moved out of exculpatory fairy tale fantasy and into the real world? The real world where gay men get bashed by straight fag bashers, where gay men have family-like networks of other gay men and gay friendly straights who support them when they need it? Where men's vicious comments to fat women hurt those women? Where white racism and anti-Semitism have killed blacks and Jews? Where men who walk around saying unkind things to others eventually meet someone who can offer a satisfying retort? Where the working poor go without necessary health care? Is it so bad that a feel good movie was made for older, more conservative white men?

Maybe not. Agendaed fairy tales have their value. I don't begrudge AGAIG its reality; I just wish there were more big-budget Hollywood films representing others' realities, too.


  1. You should rejoice that you are a different person. As Heraclitus pointed out long ago: you can never step twice into the same river (as it is always moving on). Same with life. It is those who don't change and evolve we should worry about :)

    The world has changed since 1997. It was inconceivable back then that a law would be passed enabling "gay marriage" in the UK in less than 20 years. It was inconceivable that muslims would blow up the WTC and trains in Madrid & London. It was inconceivable that a vegan would assassinate a gay communist politician for speaking out about islamic fascism in the Netherlands. It was inconceivable that gay groups, communists and feminists would all rally round and support islamo-fascist terrorists.

    Politically you and I were alike in 1997. Politically we are alike now. It is those who are still as we were who are wrong.

    1. Interesting post! Thank you, and please consider posting under a name.