Helmer James L. Brooks’ feel-good “people who need people” picture reunites him with Jack Nicholson, who won a second Oscar for his “Endearment” role as Garrett Breedlove, and appeared unbilled in the late innings of Brooks’ “Broadcast News” as a pompous network anchorman. Here Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, an antisocial romance novelist whose diagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder doesn’t quite excuse his personal abrasiveness. Melvin could have come across as pathologically cruel without an actor of Nicholson’s depth and charm in the role, but an Oscar bid may suffer from Woody Allen’s syndrome — i.e., audience discomfort with a male lead roughly twice the age of his leading lady.
Who, in the person of Helen Hunt, may just stand a better chance than Nicholson in the Oscar steeplechase. Brooks gave Hunt one of her first jobs ever, as Murray’s daughter on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and here his patented mix of comedy and drama shows off her mature range beautifully. She also turns on the waterworks in one scene, never exactly a liability come Oscar time.
In addition to Nicholson and Hunt, Greg Kinner also has a good shot at winning an acting nomination. As painter Simon Bishop, who loses his good looks, his livelihood and his dog’s affection all in a matter of weeks, Kinnear improbably contributes the movie’s sunniest presence. Shirley Knight (Oscar nominee for “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” and “Sweet Bird of Youth”) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (last year’s winner for best supporting actor) also do their best with their brief screen appearances.
Below the line, Brooks’ insistence on scrupulous realism in all things may prove an Oscar disadvantage. Composer Hans Zimmer and veteran D.P. John Bailey’s graceful, unobtrusive support may not survive the often spectacle-happy general membership’s final ballot.
The defiantly small, anti-epic scale of “As Good As It Gets” could militate against a best picture nomination as well. Meanwhile, Brooks’ own Oscar chances may prove as unpredictable as his nearly plotless film. His TV pedigree and writing credentials probably cost him a directing nomination for “Broadcast News” in 1987; that year, perhaps prophetically, a writing nom was as good as it got.
Classic Oscar credentials: 4 ( very human scale)
Cause celebre: 2 (curmudgeon learns to love dogs, gay people and a woman half his age, not necessarily in that order)
Vanity elements: 8 (Jack’s back)
The David vs. Goliath Syndrome: 5 (ordinary damaged people vs. epic movies)
The feel-good movie of the year: 8 (you laugh, you cry, you want to adopt Helen Hunt’s sick little son)
The unavoidable, inexorable buzz: 7 (Hollywood likes Brooks)
Idiot savants have more fun: 2 (“Some of my best friends are obsessive compulsives.”)
Timing is everything: 10 (Perfect season for a Scrooge story.)
O.Q. total: 46