As Good As It Gets Cooks on DVD

Helen Hunt, Jack Nicholson, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding, Jr. Directed by James L. Brooks. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1. Dolby Digital 5.1. Additional language: French. 139 minutes. 1997. Columbia TriStar DVD 21709. Rated PG-13. $29.95.

Recipe for success: Put three problem-laden characters in a pot. Stir slowly while bringing to a simmer. Cover and let chill overnight. Uncover and serve. Voilá! They all live happily ever after.

That's the concept behind James L. Brooks' acclaimed As Good As It Gets, which earned Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars for leads Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt at this year's Academy Awards. The film also took the Golden Globe award for Best Picture.

Nicholson is excellent as the isolated, bigoted, obsessive-compulsive novelist Melvin Udall, a man with a personality so repellent that only one waitress in all of Manhattan will serve him. The waitress is Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt), a harried single mom with a sickly little boy. Her son's medical emergencies cause her frequent absences from work, wreaking havoc with Melvin's meal times; if she's not at the restaurant, no one else will serve him, and he can't eat. Melvin's life is further complicated by his distaste for his gay neighbor, artist Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), who throws loud, elaborate parties.

We first meet the unpleasant Mr. Udall when he stuffs Simon's little dog, Verdell, down the garbage chute of their high-rise. He then practices some skillful gay-bashing and race-baiting on Simon and his guests, including art dealer Frank Sachs, spectacularly portrayed by last year's winner of the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Cuba Gooding, Jr. The immensely self-satisfied Udall almost gets away with it, but he provokes Frank's wrath in a way that requires payback.

That payback is soon demanded, when Simon is hospitalized after being seriously injured by some punks burglarizing his apartment. Frank foists the little dog on Melvin, who begins to have a caring relationship with another creature for the first time. Cracks begin to appear in his armor; he quietly arranges a private pediatrician for Carol's son, although this is motivated more by his own self-interest than philanthropy.

The burglary and assault destroy Simon's desire to paint, and during his convalescence, his finances take an irretrievable plunge. Soon it becomes apparent that his only hope is to ask his parents---who haven't spoken with him in years---for money. Frank coerces Melvin into driving Simon to make the request in person. Melvin reluctantly agrees, then, in a fit of homophobia, asks Carol to accompany them as a kind of chaperone.

With that, the mismatched trio sets off on an unintentional journey of discovery, learning more than they ever wanted to know about themselves and each other. Of course, the outcome of the journey is that they all find what they need.

The script, by Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks, is a textbook example of perfect dramatic structure. The intersecting lives of the three main characters are woven together in a thick braid, so skillfully executed that the question of plausibility never arises. The dialog is witty and entertaining, and the acting and cinematography are excellent. It's easy to see why this feel-good flick enjoyed such enormous popularity.

The only serious drawback to the entire production is the huge suspension of disbelief viewers must exercise regarding the love interest between Nicholson's and Hunt's characters. Even when he becomes a "born again" nice guy, Melvin Udall still isn't all that appealing. When you add the fact that he's older than Carol's mother, the stretch is taken to the breaking point.

The older man/younger woman scenario is a movie cliché that has outlived its relevance. Hollywood's stable of graying stallions persist in the fiction that they remain real stud muffins, but for the most part, they just look silly trying to prop up the façades of their sagging virility. Doesn't the opposite scenario---older woman/younger man---deserve equal time? Until How Stella Got Her Groove Back, the topic hadn't been touched by Hollywood since Harold and Maude, a wonderful film now 28 years old.

The DVD transfer is excellent, with very few visible compression or pixelization artifacts. Color and detail are dead-on accurate, and the sound is superb. Technically, there's not much to criticize about As Good As It Gets on DVD; it's a fine example of what quality home entertainment is all about.