As Good As It Gets (1997): James L. Brooks’ TV-like Film, Starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt in Oscar Performances

Both funny and sad, the 1997 Best Picture Oscar nominee, As Good As It Gets, followed in the footsteps of James L. Brooks’ previous film, “Terms of Endearment,” except it was more eccentric, nutty, and in moments genuinely moving.

Our Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Brooks, a better writer than director, essentially makes TV soap opera on the big screen, benefiting from big budget and the presence of movie stars.

The central three characters are all flawed individuals, in desperate need for connection, if not love.

Jack Nicholson won his third (and second Best Actor) Oscar, and Helen Hunt won her first Best Actress Oscar as the romantic couple: He, a rich neurotic, who frequents the same restaurant every day; she, a working class single mom.

Never mind the age difference–Nicholson was 60, and Hunt only 34–there was chemistry between the misogynist bachelor and the needy but proud and defiant mother.

The movie opened to mixed reviews, but scored big at the box-office, with grosses of close to $150 million in the U.S..

Some critics carped that the movie was too long and indulgent, claiming that writers Mark Andrus and Brooks constructed a good beginning and a good ending, but a weak middle.

The tale’s sentimental nature (a problem with all of Brooks’ features) was here effectively countered by Nicholson’s wickedly funny conduct; including cruel mistreatment of a dog.

Others saw “As Good As It Gets as an extension of Brooks’ TV work; all of his films contain scenes that betray his sitcom origins.

The segments devoted to a gay painter (Greg Kinnear), forced to go to his disapproving parents to ask for money, slowed down the picture and resorted to gay stereotyping. But it offered an opportunity for the mostly indoor tale to get outdoors, with a trip in which each of the three characters has some terrific moments of self-discovery.

Brooks saw his film as a humanist tale with a message: “That which makes us safe, also imprisons us.” And indeed, in the course of the story, all three figures are forced out of their comfort zone to confront new challenges associated with new, unfamiliar encounters.

But in 1997, James Cameron’s ominous, vastly entertaining “Titanic” gave all its competitors a run for their money.

And yet in another disgraceful oversight, Brooks was snubbed by the Academy’s Directors Branch, which failed to nominate him.