... sentiment or sentimentality
The other night, alone in deference to Christmas shopping, I aimlessly clicked the remote TV buttons up and down, looking for something interesting to watch. To my delight, 'As Good As It Gets' was being shown on the TNT channel. I was captivated the first time I saw it and settled myself in for another treat. It was even better watching the second time. I laughed myself silly, with a few tears, through most of it that left me wondering why I was so entranced by this movie.
The movie came out in 1997 and won best actor and actress with a nomination for best supporting actor. These were well-deserved, but I think that David Brooks equally deserves best director. Five years later, I still want to offer a few thoughts of my own about this marvelous film.
Sentiment, yes, sentimentality, never! This is an admonition for all fiction writers that may easily apply to film. The content of AGAIG (If I may) is packed with important contemporary themes. There is a single Mom (Carol Connelly/ Helen Hunt) living in an apartment with her chronically ill nine-year-old son, (Spencer/Jesse James) shared, also, with her single mother (Beverly/Shirley Knight). The lead character (Melvin Udall/Jack Nicholson) is a certifiable obsessive-compulsive with an ugly disposition as a way of defending against intimacy. Across the hall from Melvin, in his apartment, is a gay painter (Simon Bishop/Greg Kinnear) and Verdell, one of those little dogs that looks like the end of a mop, complete with big brown eyes, cinnamon coat, black whiskers and pug nose. Also, Simon has a black art dealer (Frank Sachs/Cuba Gooding, Jr.) to round out the main characters. There is a little of everything, physical illness, mental illness, race, homosexuality, mother of a confining sick child, also contending with her single mother who lives with Carol and Spencer.
The story opens wherein Melvin successfully prevents Verdell from peeing on the wall by tossing him down the trash shoot. It’s not long before Simon’s male model and two of his thug friends bash Simon with his own hat rack, requiring hospitalization. Remembering how nasty Melvin was to Verdell, Frank, the art dealer, an imposing black man, insists that Melvin care for Verdell while Simon recuperates. Melvin, so pressured, reluctantly accepts Verdell. It is through this forced connection between Melvin and Verdell that we begin to learn that Melvin is capable of some degree of intimacy. Melvin saves the scraps of bacon for Verdell in a plastic bag from the restaurant where Carol, the waitress, as he calls her, serves him. Melvin ties Verdell outside of the restaurant to a hydrant from where they can see each other while he has his breakfast.
After breakfast, Melvin walks Verdell on a leash. As Melvin takes pains to step over the cracks in the pavement,to his amazement and delight, so, after a while, does Verdell. This is clearly far-fetched sentimentality to assume that Verdell is capable of such identification. When Melvin must return Verdell to Simon, he sits at his piano, alone, and tears fall onto his cheeks. That Melvin is capable of attachment gives credibility to the story as it goes along.
The central theme of the story is the relationship between Melvin and Carol the waitress. Later in the story he will introduce Carol to Simon by saying, “Carol the waitress, this is Simon the fag.” This device of using such obnoxious labels for persons has the effect of creating distance from human intimacy, the dynamic of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) thought to be guilt, shame and unworthiness.
Under the throes of OCD, Melvin is captured by an insistent routine. It is essential that Carol the waitress wait on him for daily breakfast. When it turns out that Carol the waitress must discontinue work to stay near her ill son, Spencer. Melvin arranges and finances a special doctor to cure Spencer. At the urging of her mother, Carol accepts Melvin’s generous offer. As her mother says, “This is not just a string of pearls you can toss back.”
In one of the more powerful scenes in the story, Carol dresses and takes a bus to Melvin’s apartment building. She purposefully strides along; the viewer feels her urgency without knowing her intention. On her walk to his building, she is soaked with rain. As she approaches and knocks on Melvin’s door, she looks down and notices that her nipples have popped out through through her white, soaked tee shirt. Melvin opens the door to her as she clutches her arms in front of her chest. She steps in and drips on the floor. Melvin takes a towel and moves to wipe the floor that Carol, thinking it is intended for her, takes it in her hands. They spar back and forth at why Carol the waitress is there. At last, she blurts, “I will never, never ever have sex with you.” After a long pause Melvin says, looking down his nose at her, “We don’t open for sex shows until after 9:00 AM.” As Carol the waitress walks out of Melvin’s door Melvin says, “So you’ll be at work tomorrow, right?”
Carol has drawn the not unreasonable but incorrect assumption that Melvin’s paying for Spencer’s medical expenses was to have sex with her. Melvin is just too engulfed in OCD to have sex on his mind. His question about her being at work in the morning, though, does give the hint that Melvin is interested in more than just being waited on. Melvin does not seem to know this.
At breakfast the next morning, it’s not long before Melvin exacts payment. Simon’s art dealer, Frank, is asking Melvin to drive Simon to Baltimore to get money from his father, as Simon is now broke. Simon is still in a cast and can’t yet drive. Frank can’t make it and puts the squeeze on Melvin to drive Simon to Baltimore. At first Melvin resists, but remembers having heard Carol express a wish for a drive in the country. Melvin agrees to drive Simon because he wants to bring Carol the waitress along, also. The viewer can perhaps guess at Melvin’s motive for wanting Carol along, but he, himself, doesn’t seem to know why. When Carol demurs, Melvin insists. Carol says, “You meant this as payment for taking care of Spencer?” True to himself, Melvin says, “Is there any other way to look at it?”
The next important scene finds Melvin and Carol the waitress entering a Baltimore restaurant. OCD doesn’t allow Melvin to accept a jacket and tie loaned by the restaurant. His solution is to run around the corner and to buy a jacket and tie. They are finally seated at a table when Melvin laments, “How come I had to buy a jacket and tie and they let you in in a house dress?” Carol the waitress does look a little frumpy, that, Melvin being Melvin, is prompted to mention, thoughtlessly, perhaps? Carol the waitress is outraged. She gets up to leave, but instead demands a compliment. After a lot of squirming in his seat, Melvin agrees. Melvin says that he absolutely abhors taking pills of any kind. He tells Carol the waitress that after she had come to his apartment “that” night, the next morning he began taking his (OCD) pills. Carol, the waitress, says she can’t understand why that’s a compliment to her. Melvin says it’s because, “You make me want to be a better man.” After a long pause, Carol says, “That’s the best compliment I’ve ever had.” After a minute or two, Carol sits herself closer to Melvin, grabs his head in her hands and plants a lingering kiss on his mouth. She even seems to suggest that sex together might happen if asked. Melvin is noticeably pleased yet uncomfortable with the physical closeness. So when Carol insists he tells her why Melvin brought her to Baltimore, he says one of his ideas was that maybe she would get Simon on the right path if she and Simon had sex. Melvin, master at creating distance, watches Carol storm out.
The scene that follows, still in the Baltimore hotel, Simon sees Carol semi-nude in a bath towel and declares his need to draw her. Simon draws Carol through the night, a corny experience wherein Simon has an epiphany, a return of his artistic talent. Simon had been rejected by his parents for being gay and had shunned him ever since his father gave him money and tossed him out years ago. He had come to Baltimore to, as Melvin put it, “To get another wad of sweaty money.” In the morning, Simon calls his parents to tell them he is doing fine.
Back in New York, it turns out that Melvin has had a room in his large apartment made over for Simon to occupy. A marvelous kindness, of course, but “Sentimentality inflates the dramatic instant.” The gesture of a doctor for Spencer stretched the imagination. Giving Simon a home overdoes it.
Melvin becomes agitated at what seems his loss of Carol. He seeks comment and comfort from Simon who says, “You love her!” Melvin’s rejoinder is, “I thought you people (meaning the world of gays) were supposed to be sensitive and sharp!” Even so, at Simon’s urging, Melvin goes after Carol.
In the final scene, Melvin and Carol go for a 5:00 AM walk. Melvin manages to step on a crack as he reaches and kisses Carol. With a look, he says, “I can do better than that!” Melvin grabs Carol, again, in a lingering kiss. As they walk along, the 4:00 AM bakery lights up and they enter. Maybe that’s a too sentimental metaphor for the happy days ahead?
Probably the best parts of the picture, not lending itself to words, are the abundant looks, gestures, and images. All of the characters, Melvin, Carol, Simon, Beverly, throughout, say powerfully with their faces what cannot be shown so easily with words. This, no doubt, comes from the director, Richard Brooks, as much as it does from the truly marvelous actors. Also, the muted, tinkling musical score in the background underscores the sentiments expressed.
It is a film of failed lives that find the way to recovery even though the means sometimes stretch the imagination. I suppose I’m a sentimentalist, but that’s why I really like 'As Good As It Gets'.
November 6, 2009