Monday, 4 January 2010

Romance, Fantasy and Escape in As Good As It Gets


“It feels a little confined in here – let’s take a walk.”
– Melvin, As Good as it Gets

Romantic love is a concept that necessarily relies upon a degree of mutually-shared idealization and fantasy. It makes sense, then, that for hundreds of years the genre of romantic comedy has developed a number of conventions for dramatising the link between romance and fantasy. Whether this be through plots revolving around masquerade and role-playing (as in, say, Twelfth Night, or, in Hollywood, Pillow Talk), courtships relying on artificially-manufactured romantic schemes (e.g.: Much Ado About Nothing or, say, The Proposal), or the use of the supernatural (say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Ghosts of Girlfriends Past), the romantic comedy has repeatedly found ways of suggesting that romance is to an extent synonymous with, and made possible through, fantasy.

One of the most common ways in which this happens is via a comedy’s couple escaping from a drab and/or repressive social reality that stifles their romance into a quasi-magical elsewhere where the resolution of love becomes possible (e.g.: All’s Well That Ends Well, or It Happened One Night). In Shakespearean romantic comedy this place is often a forest or other natural space – what Northrop Frye dubbed the ‘green world’: a space that suggests enchantment, and the possibility of living an ideal that is impossible to achieve in workaday reality. In contemporary Hollywood romantic comedies the magical space has often effectively been the space of cinema itself. Often seemingly an attempt to counteract a contemporary audience’s assumed cynicism about depictions of romantic love, many recent romantic comedies tacitly acknowledge their status as cinematic fantasy in order to allow their characters to fall spectacularly and fantastically in love. A film may do this through mentioning other romance films (as in, say, When Harry Met Sally), or by having its plot mirror another classic romance plot (Sleepless in Seattle), or even by virtually openly announcing its fictional status, like Pretty Woman, which accompanies its lovers’ final kiss with a chorus-like extra saying “Welcome to Hollywood! Land of dreams. Always time to dream, so keep on dreaming…” This kind of modern romantic comedy implicitly tells us “we know that you know that this is a fantasy, but we also know that you/we want it – here it is”. (See here for a piece by me on contemporary romantic comedy which touches on some of these issues.)

One (relatively) recent romantic comedy that resists the impulse to use the cinema itself as the site of fantasy is James L. Brooks’ 1997 film As Good As It Gets, which in fact returns – in a relatively subtle way – to the notion of the helpful fantasy of the ‘green world’. Through looking briefly at the narrative and style of the film, I want to try to explain why it makes so much sense that the union of Melvin (Jack Nicholson) and Carol (Helen Hunt) can only take place after the couple decide to “take a walk”.

The romance plot of As Good As it Gets revolves around the relationship between Melvin, a rich but heavily neurotic and obsessive-compulsive popular romance writer, and Carol, a warm and down-to-earth waitress with a very sick young son, Spencer. A regular customer at the restaurant where Carol works, Melvin initially butchers any chance of a relationship with her through his uncontrollable insensitivity towards her and others’ feelings. The couple grow closer when Melvin offers to pay for Spencer’s medical care, an offer that Carol – after initial indecision – gratefully accepts. The possibility of romance first rears its head during a trip Melvin and Carol take to Baltimore with Melvin’s neighbour, Simon (Greg Kinnear), where they share their first kiss. Melvin ultimately manages to self-sabotage once again, however, and Carol tells him, on returning to New York, that she doesn’t want to be around him anymore since “All you do is make me feel bad about myself”. This sets the scene for Melvin’s final attempt: at trip over to Carol’s apartment that then leads to a shared 4am walk on a deserted street, where the film ultimately ends.

Interior spaces in As Good as it Gets – particularly those of home and work – are largely negative spaces. They are associated with violence (Simon’s apartment, where he is robbed and beaten),

illness (Carol’s apartment that houses her sick son, the hospital, Melvin’s shrink’s office),

loneliness (Melvin’s apartment),

and uncomfortable encounters (the restaurant Carol works in, various scenes held in doorways).

In short, they represent the claustrophobia of an oppressive and often upsetting reality. This is made clear when Carol brings home a date, only for him to be put off by the appearance of her sick son, which causes him to leave with the line, “Just a little too much reality for a Friday night…” Equally, the geographical dimensions of unhappiness are illustrated when Carol caustically tells Melvin that

“I want your life for one minute – where my big problem is someone offers me a free convertible so I can get out of this city.”

Considered very broadly and colloquially, we can also say that ‘reality’ is the obstacle to Melvin and Carol’s relationship. The progress of their romance relies on the couple escaping (via a trip in a convertible, an out-of-town restaurant, a walk on a street) the suffocating and grounded nature of humdrum reality and finding refuge in a shared emotional space of fantasy. While fantasy is always an important component of romance, it seems particularly important here given quite how unlikely a pairing Melvin and Carol are: they seem so unsuited to one another in so many ways that any relationship they might have would seem to require a certain disconnection from the ‘real world’. (The film is also unlike other more schematic romantic comedies in that it does not give each character flaws that will complement or counteract the other’s – contemporary romance’s answer to how to present ‘fated’ love to an audience who might be sceptical of the concept.) That happiness is also for them partly a matter of space is made clear when Melvin at one point speaks of what stories might be told by people whose lives are happier than his or Carol’s:

“Some of us have great stories, pretty stories, that take place at lakes with boats, and friends, and noodle salad – some of us, just no one in this car.”

The couple’s movement from claustrophobic reality to liberating fantasy is also often neatly and economically conveyed at a stylistic level, and this is one of the things that contributes to making this not only a thematically but a cinematically rich variation of this convention.

In the first scene between the couple Carol takes Melvin’s order at the restaurant. Here the enclosed nature of the space – and the fact that it is not shared space – is strongly stressed. First the cramped, uncomfortable nature of the setting is stressed through the staging of the clumsy navigation that takes place at the scene’s opening, when Melvin crowds Carol, demanding to be seated at his favourite table. His invasion of her (professional) space causes Carol to physically move him out of her way,

and to close a counter-top in order to keep him on the customer’s side of a staff area (“Go on, sit down – you know you’re not allowed back here…”).

After Melvin has eventually been seated, the couple’s conversation is framed in shots that serve to enclose each character tightly. Their talk mainly concerns Spencer (the most important symbol of grounded ‘reality’ for Carol’s character) and Melvin’s unwitting insensitivity towards him. Having overheard a conversation about Spencer’s health, Melvin flippantly comments that “We’re all going to die soon – I will, you will, and it sure sounds like your son will,” causing a furious Carol to threaten to bar him from the restaurant (the dialogue and acting here are deeply felt: “If you ever mention my son again you will never be able to eat here again… Do you understand me – you crazy fuck…?”) Spencer’s and Melvin’s conditions are the major factors in the progression of – and obstacles to – romance throughout the film, and in this scene we see our two protagonists still very much in their emotional grip. As such, they are prevented at this stage from achieving any kind of mutual understanding. This predicament is reflected in the shooting style: both are framed almost exclusively in single mid-shots and close-ups, their faces never clearly inhabiting the same frame.

There is no connection between, and no shared space for, the couple at this point: they are trapped in their lives, stuck in their ways, and caught in their own private spaces.

A later scene shows a significant progression for the romance since it marks the first time that either member of the couple visits the other in their own personal surroundings (as Carol says to Melvin when he shows up unexpectedly at her apartment: “Are you totally gone?! This is my private home!”), and is also the first time of many that they will confront each other in a doorway. Melvin, a man who lives in his own world (because of his neuroses, his money, his self-enforced isolation) is making a sudden leap here into a very ‘real’ space, and the two extremes are not yet ready to mix. Consequently the space is stressed again as being very claustrophobic: we repeatedly come back to shots of Carol into which her front door protrudes, and shots of Melvin framed against the corner of the hallway – both visual elements acting as reminders of the solid and enclosed nature of the space.

(Though note the painting behind Melvin: a kitsch depiction of Paris, which hints, in its modest, sentimental way, at possible romantic escape).

The couple are shown once again in tight mid-shots and close-ups, seldom breaking one another’s frames. As well as this, as Melvin stands in the doorway, he is framed against the light background of the hall’s wall, while Carol is set against the very differently-shaded door and apartment, making the spaces they inhabit look physically dissimilar. At one moment Carol moves into her kitchen and Melvin falteringly follows. This symbolically significant moment for their relationship is marked stylistically by a shot in which they are both visible at once.

However, even here, both their faces still never clearly inhabit the same space. The progression of their romance depends on Melvin’s ability to do more than peer into this reality – he needs to enter it slightly more; equally, Carol needs to move away from it, and not simply throw Melvin out (as she does so here, when he fails to interact well with Spencer), returning to her sink and exclaiming, “Back to life…”

The final scene I want to look at is also the final scene of the film (watch it here). It takes place after Melvin has made an attempt (though still one that allows him to keep Carol’s messy life at arm’s length) to interact with the ‘real world’ via his gift of paying for Spencer’s medical care, and after Carol has accepted that she can occasionally take time out from her life via the trip she makes with Melvin to Baltimore. In Baltimore they came close to resolving their romance, but Melvin managed to foul it up by offending Carol once again. On the night of their return to New York, Melvin decides to have one last stab at winning Carol over. He first tries visiting her at her home, but the setting proves unsuitable: for one thing, the impossibility of privacy is once again stressed (as it was in the failed date scene) by Carol’s mother being just a curtain away in the next room.

In Melvin’s words: “It feels a little confined in here – let’s talk a walk.” We now cut from the couple exiting the apartment…

…to their walk on a deserted street, the first shot immediately demonstrating the drastically different treatment of space.

In a clear juxtaposition, we cut from the familiar tight, static mid-shot the ends the previous interior scene to a graceful, gliding long-shot, craning slowly down from above to frame the couple as they walk.Throughout the scene Melvin and Carol are shown in generous, often tracking, two-shots in which they move around freely and in which we can see their faces occupying the same space.

As well as this, even when separated by close-ups, the street background – rather than being stark and defined in the manner of previous interior scenes – is often seen as tranquil, blurred darkness and soft, out-of-focus street and car lights.

This, clearly, is a helpful, ‘enchanted’ space – the privacy of the hour allowing the creation of a modest ‘green world’ in the centre of New York.

The scene sees the couple making their final progression into a different, hopeful sense and space of fantasy that allows them to feel they have chance of a relationship together. Consequently, the formal elements (camera movement, framing, depth of focus) present us with a far less rigid and ‘real’ space – a space they can share. The tentative nature of the conclusion is made clear by the framing of the final shot: it is split in two – the exterior of the street and the interior of the bakery, light and dark, soft warm rolls inside and cracked, potentially anxiety-inducing pavement outside.

Yet the enchantment experienced on the street suddenly now feels possible, at least for this moment, on the inside too – the bakery that opens at 4 in the morning having a pleasingly helpful and nearly-magical quality to it. In this moment – Melvin having just managed to step on cracked paving for the first time in the film – neither inside nor outside feels especially threatening or claustrophobic. How long will this last? Perhaps not long – it will be dawn soon: will the rising sun chase away the enchantment, the bustle of rush hour in the bakery and the street turn magical New York back into merely everyday New York once more?

There is a sense at the close of the film that this relationship is perhaps founded more on a valiant, perhaps misplaced, optimism in the face of disheartening reality than in reality itself, and that the developing romance is based more on a near-desperate need for, rather love of, one another. The eternal hindrance to the relationship, Melvin’s neurosis, seems to be weakening, but is by no means gone, and the most important thing in Carol’s life – Spencer – has only met Melvin once, and it was, even then, a rather unsuccessful encounter. They have progressed from a suffocating ‘reality’ to a more tentative, free and hopeful ‘unreality’ by half overcoming, half side-stepping, the obstacles in their way. The romance may not be perfect – there is no mention of love here (the final proposition is not “I love you” / “I love you too”, but Melvin’s clumsy “Is that something that it’s bad to be around – for you?”) – but it is as good as it can get for these two at this time; and that, I think we are encouraged to feel, isn’t too bad.


  1. Nice. I'm starting to like blogs.
    I began to wonder as I read how Melvin's writing, and the snippets of it that we hear as he writes, fit into the schema you propose here.
    Your evocation of the bakery made me think of the end of Buffalo 66 - and the Raymond Carver short story 'A Small, Good Thing'.
    And I can't believe I didn't remember the film takes in Baltimore...!

  2. PS. I did mean 'takes in', but now it looks like I missed out the word 'place'.

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  4. It's actually interesting how downplayed Melvin's career as a romance writer is in the film. Most romantic comedies would seize upon this as an opportunity to stress the irony of him spinning tales of love whilst being so lonely and misanthropic himself, but here it's just allowed to simmer instructively in the background. It does of course point up again the extent to which romance and fantasy/fiction/narrtivising are linked, but its underplaying is another marker of how different this film is from the more 'self-conscious' cycle of romantic comedies I mentioned.

    It does indeed take in Baltimore! You don't see much of it though: mainly just a restaurant and hotel interiors. I would doubt they actually shot there.

  5. Woman: "How do you write women so well?"

    Melvin: "I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability."

    I burst out laughing when I heard this. (I think I was the only guy in the theatre to have an outburst). Needless to say, I didn't get a second date! Love that line!