It’s impossible to tell if it’s this movie that’s not aging well, or if it’s me. Maybe I’m just getting more curmudgeonly with every passing year, but this movie seemed better in my memory than it did in the re-watching.
Jack Nicholson, who is superb, plays Melvin, an obsessive-compulsive gentleman who lives an extremely regimented life until two things stop him in his tracks: a diner waitress, and a mangy dog.
The first: Helen Hunt is, playing a martyr named Carol, or you know, just doing the Helen Hunt thing. I’m immediately annoyed with her character. Being a single mom is so hard, guys! And asthma: the worst! She got an Oscar for this, so I guess I’m just being hard on her. She plays the only waitress that will serve Melvin at the only restaurant he’ll eat in. When she doesn’t show up to serve him his usual three eggs, over easy because her son is sick, he shows up at her house hungry with a doctor in tow.
The second: Greg Kinnear plays Simon, Melvin’s arty neighbour. Melvin is not what you would call a sociable man and has no love for any of his neighbours, or their acquaintances, or their pets. In fact, Simon’s pup Verdell takes a trip down the trash chute early on because Melvin can’t stand the sight of him. But once Cuba Gooding Jr. brow-beats Melvin into caring for the dog while Simon recovers from a vicious attack, certain aspects of pet ownership start to feel enticing – particularly when little Verdell starts to imitate some of Melvin’s idiosyncracies.
Always worth a mention: Jack Nicholson was also awarded an Oscar for his work on this film, and this one I can get behind. Melvin’s only communication with the world is a series of degrading insults – racist, sexist, homophobic, you name it, he spits it out. And yet we love him for it, almost. We certainly forgive him. Just a lift of his bushy eyebrows and we’re his. The fact is, there’s great dialogue between these players, full of irony and thoughtful observation. It really makes you wish the plot didn’t follow such a conventional path. If only the film makers were brave enough to follow the characters down their authentic, quirky paths instead of playing it safe.
The dog, by the way (played saucily by “Jill the dog”), never received an Oscar for her stellar work on the film, but did pick up a UK Shadows Award, presented to the best dog actor, and I think a case can be made for hers being the most charming role of them all. Technically Verdell was played by 6 dogs (Timer, Sprout, Debbie, Billy, and Parfait) but Jill was undoubtedly the star – Greg Kinnear (who was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Robin Williams for Good Will Hunting) describes being “upstaged by Jill”: “She’s got these lashes and big eyes… and when she walks onto the set everybody just says ‘oooh’.” Jill and company are Brussels Griffons and terribly cute. I’m sure she could melt the heart of any obsessive-compulsive, and I don’t know that there’s a higher compliment I can pay than that.