As Good As It Gets

The title of this picture, “As Good As It Gets” comes from lead character author Melvin Udall’s complaint to his psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with OCD. “Maybe this is as good as it gets” he told his psychiatrist, referring to his ability to function in the world and his lack of compliance with the standard professional boundaries the psychiatrist had set.

If I were his psychiatrist, I might have diagnosed the fictional Melvin Udall with a personality disorder as well. Most people would say he was a misanthrope, and from the unkind and sexually charged insults he uses on his openly gay neighbor, he initially seems to be a homophobe as well. Upon further encounters with other people of various races, genders, and walks of life, it would seem that he is an equal-opportunity hater, like Archie Bunker. However, he is wittier, “smoother”, savvyier, and more “in your face”, than the likes of Archie. Jack Nicholson portrays characters like this so well and so often that you have to wonder where the “actor” ends and the real man begins.

The perhaps unrealistic premise is that this man, who is set in his ways and seemingly hostile to those who are different from him, changes his attitude when his gay neighbor gets seriously beaten by a gang of burglars and needs financial help and housing when medical expenses bankrupt him. Udall takes in Simon’s dog, which he previously  disdained and maltreated, while Simon recuperates in the hospital and later returns to his apartment in a wheelchair.  A bit later, having gotten to know Simon and see his humanity, he takes in Simon in his spare room as well.

Another crisis, “his” waitress being absent from her job because her kid constantly gets sick and needs multiple trips to the emergency room, precipitates more relationship-building. It starts with sending a doctor to find out about the boy’s ailments and give him a full allergy test, prompted by “enlightened self-interest”. He is later able to move further towards genuinely unselfish behavior, but there are stops and starts and backtracking on the way.

The OCD this character exhibits is portrayed in the movie as obvious but not serious habits on the part of the protagonist, such as stockpiling bars of glycerine soap in his medicine cabinet, bringing plastic silverware to the restaurant he habitually patronizes, and taking pains to avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. The commentary track on the DVD to the movie revealed that they were going to show Jack Nicholson’s character engaged in some other OCD-indicative behaviors during some scenes in the movie in which they didn’t in the final cut. It was explained that the decision to change the original portrayal in this instance was to make the behaviors more minimal as the story went on.

The premise is that he gradually loses OCD compulsions as he becomes more involved in the emotional lives of the people he is in contact with, when he is put in circumstances where he ends up getting to know them personally, instead of just superficially. When Nicholson’s character finds a genuine ability to care for others and to successfully establish a relationship with a woman, his OCD behaviors gradually disappear. Whether or not this is actually a successful means to ameliorate OCD which cannot be found in a pill or a therapist’s office, I don’t know, but it makes for a very heartwarming and optimistic story.