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Viewer Guide: As Good as it Gets and Tamara Drewe

April 12, 2019 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.

 REEL 13 CLASSIC | AS GOOD AS IT GETS

This week’s classic is As Good as It Gets, a 1997 comedy-drama directed by James L. Brooks.

A partnership seemingly made in movie heaven, James L. Brooks and Jack Nicholson had already teamed up on two films, first for Nicholson’s Oscar-winning star turn in Brooks’ Terms of Endearment and then again with a memorable cameo in Broadcast News. But with the aptly titled As Good as It Gets, Brooks provided Nicholson with a tailor-made role as a most unexpected leading man in yet another Oscar-winning triumph.

Nicholson stars as Melvin Udall, a successful but thoroughly misanthropic writer who alienates anyone who unwittingly disturbs the obsessive compulsive order of his daily routine. Shunned by the neighbors in his New York City apartment building, Melvin’s many peculiarities include using a bar of soap only once, avoiding sidewalk cracks, always eating at the same restaurant—while bringing his own plastic cutlery—and insisting on the same waitress, Carol Connelly, played by Helen Hunt. A single Mom raising an asthmatic son, somehow Carol has the stamina to tolerate Melvin—just barely—along with his eccentric demands. But Melvin reserves the bulk of his disdain for Simon Bishop, a gay artist played by Greg Kinnear who lives next door, whose lifestyle and coterie of art world friends are the frequent targets of Melvin’s withering put-downs. And don’t get Melvin started on Simon’s dog Verdell. With a universally shared revulsion keeping everyone at a safe distance, Melvin’s splendid isolation seems destined to continue indefinitely, until one day one of Simon’s sketching sessions with a streetwise model played by Skeet Ulrich takes a violent turn. Reluctantly thrust into Simon’s unexpected crisis and forced to help out, Melvin’s constricted soul gradually begins to expand, marking the start of an awkward return to the human race that is equal parts comic and poignant.

Also featured in supporting roles are Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simon’s art dealer, Shirley Knight as Carol’s mother and director Harold Ramis in a cameo appearance as a kindly visiting doctor.

Revisiting As Good as It Gets now, the character of Melvin Udall seems to anticipate the arrival of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. In fact, one might argue that the films of James L. Brooks were instrumental in paving the way for the quirky and candid comedy-dramas that have become a staple on premium cable and internet streaming services. Prior to the start of his movie career with Terms of Endearment, Brooks’ extensive career as the writer-producer of several hit TV series including The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi clearly evidenced his expert touch at creating character-driven situation comedies. In his work for the cinema, such as Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets, Brooks was able to take his trademark television-style comedy to an even more mature and sophisticated level, free of FCC limitations or the nervous interference of network censors, yet retaining the warm character intimacy that 1990s audiences had come to relish on the small screen. But however you choose to categorize it as, the film was an enormous hit, soaring to $148 million in domestic box office, and garnering seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, with both Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt taking home the statuettes for Best Actor and Actress.

REEL 13 INDIE | TAMARA DREWE

Welcome back to Reel 13. I’m Richard Peña, Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University. Tonight’s indie is Tamara Drewe, a 2010 comedy-drama directed by Stephen Frears.

Set in the bucolic British countryside, Tamara Drewe begins as a cozy tour of a quaint English village—but quickly spices up the scene with some contemporary bad behavior and steamy romantic intrigue. While unapparent to all but the most intrepid and dedicated Thomas Hardy fans, the plot is loosely inspired by Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd, originating first as comic strip by Posy Simmonds that was later published as a graphic novel. Gemma Arterton stars as the title character, a London journalist returning to her hometown to sell her recently deceased mother’s house. Still harboring traumatic memories of adolescent life as an ugly duckling, Tamara has definitely matured into a swan, and now regularly turns heads thanks to a flattering nose job—and a fondness for wearing short shorts. Among the local men taking notice are Tamara’s hunky teenage fling Andy Cobb, played by Luke Evans, and Roger Allam as Nicholas Hardiment, a successful mystery writer with a wandering eye who hosts a writers retreat along with his long-suffering wife Beth, played by Tamsin Greig. Nicholas’ serial infidelities don’t go unnoticed by Glenn McCreavy, an American writer played by Bill Camp in residence to work on a book about—you guessed it, Thomas Hardy.

Tamara’s love life is further complicated by the arrival of Dominic Cooper as Ben Sergeant, a rock drummer who falls into her arms—literally—when she waits backstage to interview him for a profile. And watching it all from the sidelines are a pair of adolescents played by Jessica Barden and Charlotte Christie, whose mean girl jealousies motivate them to plot mischievous pranks that ultimately backfire with dire consequences. Wow! And you thought life in the country was quiet?

One of a number of British directors who graduated after a considerable career on TV into the cinema, British director Stephen Frears rose to international prominence with a trio of films released in the mid-1980s, My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. One of the most perceptive chroniclers of English contemporary life, Frears would broaden his cinematic range with a diverse roster of films including Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters and Dirty Pretty Things, taking him from 18th century France to Depression-era America. In 2006, Frears scored a massive success with THE QUEEN starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, which gave Mirren a well-deserved Oscar. Known as an exceptionally fine director of actors, Frears’ recent credits include Philomena and Victoria & Abdul with Judi Dench, as well as Florence Foster Jenkins with Meryl Streep.

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