As Good As It Gets' script is so strong, and its three key performances so affecting and real, that James L. Brooks' direction is likely to go unheralded. But he's pulled off a major feat: Equally mixing mean-spirited comedy and heartstring-tugging drama, Brooks has made a complicated, talky, virtually plotless, 140-minute movie that rarely drags or rings false. Everyone knows Jack Nicholson can play a cruel, cynical, bigoted, brilliant, obsessive-compulsive character—and Brooks' ability to evoke sympathy for him is remarkable—but who knew Greg Kinnear (A Smile Like Yours, Dear God) had such depth and dramatic range? He defies the gay-neighbor archetype with a sad, soulful performance that never comes off as one-note. Helen Hunt transcends her own seemingly stereotypical role—the plain-spoken, single-mom waitress-with-a-heart-of-gold—and makes what could have been an implausible romantic relationship with Nicholson seem realistic. The plot glides through countless quips and dramatic subplots, from Hunt's son's illness to Kinnear's financial strife and recovery from a violent attack, to Nicholson's battles with neighbors, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the world. It all adds up to a compelling, deftly executed film that thoughtfully examines the actions and motivations that draw people together, directing their uneasy relationships.
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