A couple of nights ago, I caught the 1997 movie As Good as it Gets on AMC. It was a very acclaimed movie back when it came out, getting nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars while both its leads took home their statues for acting. It holds up very strong even today.
I’ve seen As Good as it Gets many times, but it wasn’t until the other night that I began to understand one of the reasons why I like it so much. The movie stars Jack Nicholson as a very popular author named Melvin Udall. Although Melvin clearly writes some affecting work, his ability to write people well doesn’t translate to his being able to handle anyone else in person. Melvin is extremely OCD and just as misanthropic. It’s difficult to tell whether Melvin simply hates people or is just more comfortable on his own, but neither one changes the fact that he uses a lot of harsh expressions to keep the rest of the world at arms’ length. Yes, there are times when Melvin is pissing off everyone on purpose, but he does show enough of a soft side sometimes to make you wonder if it’s intentional or not sometimes.
When Melvin is forced to care for his neighbor’s dog, it begins a transition for him which slowly integrates him back into the outside world, at least as far as his attitude is concerned. (It’s a great testament to the talent of Jack Nicholson that he’s able to do this so convincingly and make Melvin such a lovable character.)
Despite Melvin’s general insufferability and penchant for unleashing the most vile insults (when a fawning female fan asks him how he writes women so well, Melvin responds, “I think of a man, then I take away reason and accountability,” – a quote which was apparently first said by American literary legend John Updike), we get the sense that there’s a soft underbelly in Melvin that WANTS to be liked more than he is. By the end of the movie, Melvin isn’t being a prick because he wants to be. He’s actively fighting a hard battle between the man he is and the man he wants to be, and is entering the rocky territory which tells people he’s serious about his personal changes. It isn’t being an ass by choice anymore so much as it is fighting years of conditioning.
When trying to put to rest years of being an outcast, this transition exists. There’s no waking up one day and saying “okay, I’m not going to keep pushing people away anymore.” Actually, that’s a lie – there is, but that’s merely the starting point, where you actively make the decision. Maybe this is why I think Melvin is such a wonderful character. He’s not really a bad guy, but more like an enigma who trolls to such a point that no one cares to try to figure him out. By the end, Melvin is aware of what a pain he’s been to the people around him. He’s opened his home to his neighbor Simon, who needed a place for himself and his beloved dog Verdell to stay, something which would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the movie, when he stuck poor Verdell down a laundry chute. The decency of his character is clearly there, but it’s going to be fighting with his misanthropy for awhile.
That’s what it was really like for me to try to become a better person. At some point, it becomes less a matter of making the choice and more a matter of how it’s done. It’s really a very gradual process in which the small victories and little actions start piling up. The beginning of the change can be a very awkward phase, or at least that’s how it went for me: I could see myself acting like an antisocial jerk, but felt like I was too helpless to do anything about it. My move was a godsend because it helped me start over from scratch. I still spent a bit of time messing up – still do, in fact – but I was finally able to show a form of myself that I liked and wanted people to see.
I think it’s only appropriate that I close with the most pivotal line in the movie: “You make me want to be a better person.”