Readers Write In #384: Where have the ‘Jerry Maguire’s and ‘As Good As It Gets’s gone?

Posted on July 12, 2021

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(by Karthik Amarnath)

I wonder what’s happened to the Hollywood rom-com. They used to be a big budget star studded staple up until the early noughties. Forward to the social media era, and the genre has whittled down to candy canes catering to a Valentine’s Day sugar rush.

I think of rom-coms as comfort food. There’s no great mystery about them. The template is always a two piece pie that anyone can put together in two scenes. X needs someone. Y needs someone. One’s Yin. The other’s Yang. Throw in some crunchy wit and gooey warmth. Top it off with sugary sweet sprinkles, and you go to bed happy, dream of happily ever after.

Hollywood rom-coms in their heyday were also very well written. Take Jerry Maguire for instance. It had sports, startups, breakups, bromance, all baked into an organic whole. And to top it off we got the saccharine catchphrases that would be crushed today by social media, memes churned out of the mush.

I love the catchphrases. “You Complete Me” is a personal favorite. Its a credit to Jerry Maguire that it earns that line. In fact, the writing in most of the big rom-coms holds up well even today and makes me wonder why hardly any of them have sequels. Sequels to rom-coms are kind of tricky though. How do you justify waking up from a happily ever after dream to a crashing reality and then end up in another happily ever after dream? As successful as Bridget Jones’ Baby was, it did leave me with that warmed over aftertaste.

But there is one movie I’d have really liked a sequel to, and its “As Good As it Gets.” A rom com that also tucks in a bit of existential comedy with writing thats lean as it gets. For those who havent watched the movie, it stars Jack Nicholson as Melvin Udall, a successful writer, and Helen Hunt as Carol Connelly, a struggling waitress. Melvin has OCD, and he likes living alone. Carol walks around with puke on her shirt, and she’s lonely. Yin. Yang.

So there’s the tried and tested template. And then there’s Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin, who is downright intolerable. And intolerant. Misogyny, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, you name it, he’s got a line for it. And the lines aren’t your sugary sweet catchphrases. Melvin’s cracking insults are braised to burn. Can you imagine any actor today, let alone a big star trying to describe a Black man the way Jack Nicholson yaps “(colored) like molasses, with one of those wide noses perfect for smelling trouble and prison food…”.

Even in the late nineties, before we were all woken up, Roger Ebert remarked that if the lines had been mouthed by any actor other than Jack Nicholson, “they would have brought the film to an appalled halt.” Jack Nicholson puts in an Oscar winning performance finding a uniquely Jack Nicholson character thats part loathsome, part lonely, part misanthropic, part misunderstood, or as Scott Edwards, in his book “Quintessential Jack”, puts it, “part Jack, part Nicholson”.

The crux of the movie is how does this intolerable man, who hates everything and everybody, find love? But when revisiting the movie today, the more interesting question turns out to be not the “How does Melvin” but “Who does Melvin” find love with. And the answer isn’t obvious. Yes, Melvin and Carol walk hand in hand into the sunrise right at the end of the movie. But theirs is an uneasy union if anything. Like Ebert wrote in his review “the movie’s happy ending feels like a blackout, seconds before more unhappiness begins.”

There is another love story in this movie which has a better shot at forever and that’s the one between Melvin and his neighbor Simon. Simon, played by Greg Kinnear, is a gay artist who Melvin first calls a “fudge-packer” and later introduces as “the fag”. Their characters fit the two piece template too. Melvin’s crude. Simon’s sensitive. Melvin stereotypes everybody. Simon likes to “stare at people long enough to see their humanity”. Okay, so this movie isn’t entirely vegan. But what follows this cheesy line is a literal punch to the face, which would have been a hoot if it weren’t horrific.

If there were a sequel to this movie, the Melvin-Simon relationship is the one I’d expect to see twenty years out. I can imagine them grow into an old “married” couple who keep bickering but nevertheless need each other. They’re already halfway there in this movie. They share a dog. They have late night chats. One time, Simon says “I love you” to Melvin, the only time we hear that line in the movie. He even half jokingly refers to them as “Mommy” and “Daddy”.

What about Carol then? Helen Hunt’s Oscar winning portrayal of the single mother is arguably the beating heart of the movie. One moment, her character is nurturing a child with a pulmonary disorder. The next moment she is handling Melvin and his personality disorder. In a cracking turn of events, she also reprises a role played by Simon’s mother. So there’s a whole other movie to be told from Carol’s perspective where being consigned to Melvin forever might not be as good as it seems for her.

But the biggest question for a sequel today wouldn’t be about Carol or Simon, but about Melvin. With or without a Jack Nicholson, how would his character survive the wringer of modern wokeness? After all, this is a character who made money and fame writing successful books where women, as he openly admits, are “just like men, but without any logic or accountability.” Would his books be banned today? Would he? Or would he just be forced into one of those diversity training workshops? Boy, that would be a hoot and a half.

Maybe I’m just reading the character and wokeness wrong. If there is any truth to the “opposites attract” foundation of a rom-com, then Melvin is the ideal soul mate for all things PC. And really, it’s that cliched foundation that’s most comforting about the genre. That two people who seem poles apart and have very little in common can end up walking in each other’s arms at the dawn of a new day. And in more ways than one, “As Good As it Gets” gets it as good as any movie can.