James L. Brooks' sitcom roots are all too readily apparent in "As Good as It Gets," a sporadically funny romantic comedy with all the dramatic plausibility and tonal consistency of a TV variety show.

James L. Brooks’ sitcom roots are all too readily apparent in “As Good as It Gets,” a sporadically funny romantic comedy with all the dramatic plausibility and tonal consistency of a TV variety show. The filmmaker’s ability to deliver crowd-pleasing entertainment remains intact, as the outrageous one-liners of Jack Nicholson’s hopelessly misanthropic, anti-p.c. leading character snap one to attention, and the various narrative zigzags will keep viewers on their toes. But this arch film changes mood and apparent intention virtually every other minute, creating a messy and finally off-putting ambiance that makes the three main characters and their problems become tiresome well before the far-too-long postponed denouement. Pic’s blatantly accessible humorous and emotional elements should land this in the commercial winner’s circle, although reported $75 million-plus budget puts recoupment a good way off.

At its best, as in “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News,” Brooks’ work manages to deftly blend comedy and sentiment to create a credible impression of heightened reality. Here, the familiar components are present, but are thrown together in a such a haphazard, ill-considered manner that any hope of dramatic coherence and complete characterizations is entirely undercut.

At the same time, the director fully indulges a previously fitful tendency toward overstatement and exaggeration, just as he has acquired an acute case of the cutes. Brooks’ policy this time out seems to have been, when in doubt, cut away to the performing dog.

Despite a jumble of uncertain coverage and unseemly editing, opening scenes contain considerable promise. In an obviously comic context, middle-aged New York City curmudgeon Melvin Udall (Nicholson) defines himself as the neighbor from hell by tossing a little dog down the apartment building’s garbage chute (the pooch unfortunately survives to figure prominently in the action from then on) and by gleefully assailing both Fido’s gay owner Simon (Greg Kinnear) and the latter’s black friend Frank (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in terms that would endear him to the KKK.

Melvin’s sarcastic vitriol is so fearlessly extreme as to be outrageously funny at first exposure. But his obsessive-compulsive personality has, by this point in his life, become encrusted and moldy; he lives his entire life alone in his apartment, where he is busy finishing his 62nd book; he seemingly has no friends or family; and he emerges from his shell just once a day to eat at the same restaurant, to which the germophobe brings his own plastic utensils and where he is tended to, and barely tolerated, by his favorite waitress, Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt).

Although a pretty good sport about everything, Carol has her own problems, the most serious — and cliched — of which is her asthmatic son Spencer. Typical of the film’s uncertain approach to mixing comedy and pathos is the disastrous end of a date in which Carol’s attempt at a little lovemaking with a young suitor is fatally interrupted by the sickly Spencer.

From the beginning, it is clear that the story has only one potential trajectory, that of the gradual humanization of Melvin. Unfortunately, the road to this end is considerably bumpier, longer and more contrived than anticipated.

The door to his self-awakening is opened by, of all things, Simon’s dog, for which Melvin is obliged to care after the young painter is hospitalized after a brutal mugging. To Melvin’s astonishment, he actually comes to love the mutt, which seemingly opens something in this Scrooge’s heart to the point where he starts arranging for some unsolicited first-class medical care for Carol’s son.

Ninety minutes in, pic takes a half-hour physical detour when Melvin is shanghaied into driving Simon and Carol down to Baltimore. The hotel stop involved provides a setting for some intimacy that may never have materialized otherwise, capped by Melvin’s earthshaking confession to Carol that, “You made me want to be a better man.” For his part, Simon, who has been impoverished by the medical expenses of his recuperation, also makes an emotional breakthrough on the trip.

But despite the strides made by all three characters toward a semblance of self-realization that was nowhere in sight at the outset, the ways they are achieved often seem forced and unconvincing. Some of this has to do with the abruptness and arbitrariness with which things happen in this lurching picture, which never finds a smooth road to travel. But much of it is also a result of the wildly varying tone, in which attempts at genuine human moments and credible emotion can be negated in an instant by cheap comic effects and overt pandering to the audience.

Representing the picture’s virtues and flaws in a nutshell is Nicholson’s performance, which is wonderfully enjoyable when Melvin remains an irascible s.o.b. but becomes unfathomable in its would-be tender moments. The character’s background, and what made him the way he is, remains resolutely unexplored, and the actor increasingly resorts to shuffling and mugging to paste over the cracks in motivation.

Hunt’s Carol is a more rounded and comprehensible creation, but the character isn’t all that interesting and the notes Hunt hits, while true, never seem particularly surprising or unusual. Kinnear is decent as the superficially successful but insecure artist, while some of the performance of Cuba Gooding Jr., in his first role since winning an Oscar for “Jerry Maguire,” must have been left on the cutting room floor, since he pops up only sporadically as a rather blustery plot facilitator.

John Bailey’s lensing has a nice pastel quality that agreeably reflects the pic’s modest physical dimensions. But Richard Marks’ editing strains, against all but impossible odds, to smooth over the material’s scattershot moods and impressions.

As Good as It Gets

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a TriStar Pictures presentation of a Gracie Films production. Produced by James L. Brooks, Bridget Johnson, Kristi Zea. Executive producers, Richard Sakai, Laurence Mark, Laura Ziskin. Co-producers, John D. Schofield, Richard Marks. Directed by James L. Brooks. Screenplay, Mark Andrus, Brooks, story by Andrus.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), John Bailey; editor, Richard Marks; music, Hans Zimmer; production design, Bill Brzeski; art direction, Philip Toolin; set decoration, Clay A. Griffith; costume design, Molly Maginnis; sound (Dolby/SDDS), Jeff Wexler; head animal trainer, Roger Schumacher; associate producer, Owen Wilson; assistant director, Aldric Porter; casting, Francine Maisler. Reviewed at the Fine Arts Theater, Beverly Hills, Dec. 4, 1997. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 138

With

Melvin Udall - Jack Nicholson Carol Connelly - Helen Hunt Simon Bishop - Greg Kinnear Frank Sachs - Cuba Gooding Jr. Vincent - Skeet Ulrich Beverly - Shirley Knight Jackie - Yeardley Smith Nora - Lupe Ontiveros

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