Rated PG-13 - Running time: 2:18 - Released 12/25/97

A decade ago, a person with Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder would have been laughed at as "anal retentive." And ten years before that, he probably would have just been called "weird." But now in the age of Prozac and Anafranil, those whose inner demons consist of germs and domestic rituals can live a more or less normal life. If they take their pills.

But romance novelist Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is not taking his pills, so he must wash his hands after they've come in contact with — well, anything. He must lock his door three times in quick succession. He must eat breakfast at the same diner every day, at the same table, with his plastic cutlery. And he must always have the same waitress: Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt).

Carol is a single mother, scraping by on a waitress's salary, living with her mother and her asthmatic son Spencer (Jesse James). This puts a serious hamper on her love life, but she has little choice: Spencer is prone to severe attacks that keep mom deep in the doctor bills.

Melvin does his best to avoid his gay artist neighbor Simon Bishop (Greg Kinnear), and Simon's dog Verdell (Jill). In fact, he's such a misanthrope, he generally tries to avoid everyone. But when Simon is robbed and beaten by some thugs and must stay in the hospital for a while, Melvin is saddled with taking care of the beloved pooch. To a person with OCD, this is like a sledgehammer through the picture window of his life.

So begins the story of three people who have been dealt some of life's hardest blows. We gradually learn that all three have created so many barriers they have difficulty dealing with anyone. But they all must help each other, and all the layers of protection must come off before they can do so. The rich relationships between them are what make this movie so enjoyable. Rarely have I seen Hunt so engaging; she's created a real 3-D character here, unlike that of Twister (1996). Kinnear's portrayal of depression is genuine — it is easy to see why Simon is unable to create when his mounting bills lead toward eviction and even his dog prefers Melvin now.

But Nicholson is the master craftsman of this movie. His characterization of Melvin is exquisitely subtle; he is not over the edge this time. He just needs to have his life in the proper order, and tries desperately to deal when it is turned upside down. He needs love like all of us, but destroys every chance he gets with his abusive manner. And the risks he takes may seem small to those who don't suffer from OCD, but anyone who has been around someone with that ailment can see the depth of his struggle. Watching him and Hunt trying to reach out to each other gives a palpable sense of their mutual need.

Director James L. Brooks must be credited for creating the depth of these interpersonal relationships, though rumor has it Nicholson had a large hand in the direction. Whoever is responsible, it makes for an enjoyable 2+ hours; humorous, romantic, personal. ****½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

See Current Reviews

See FilmQuips Archive