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The transfigurative power of love is a perennial Hollywood theme, and it’s pretty popular with writer-director James L. Brooks, too. A TV veteran who helped create the mostly platonic relationships on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Brooks imagined a romantic attraction so potent that it could muss the blow-dried demeanor of Broadcast News anchorman William Hurt. He also used the corrosive charm of Jack Nicholson to cut the sentimentality of his Terms of Endearment. The director’s latest, As Good as It Gets, which opens next Tuesday, features both transfigurative romance and corrosive Jack. Just to be sure, it also includes Prozac.

To put the movie in more contemporary terms, As Good as It Gets is this year’s Jerry Maguire. In that film, directed by Cameron Crowe and produced by Brooks, a pretty, earnest, uncomplicated single mom redeemed a high-powered but callow young man. This film’s Melvin (Nicholson) is older and grumpier, but his love interest is almost identical: Carol (Helen Hunt) is a plainspoken waitress whose life revolves around her asthmatic 6-year-old son Spencer (Jesse James). At first, Melvin’s secret crush on Carol is the only fissure in his psychological barrier. Gleefully ugly to his gay painter neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear), Simon’s African-American art dealer Frank (Jerry Maguire’s Cuba Gooding Jr.), and anyone else who gets in his way, Melvin is about as nasty as a Brooks character can be. Meaner than Lou Grant, he even dumps Simon’s dog Verdell down his apartment building’s trash chute in the movie’s opening scene.

Ironically, the misogynistic Melvin is a best-selling romance novelist. He’s also an obsessive-compulsive who unwraps a fresh bar of soap every time he washes his hands, carries his own plastic cutlery, and fastidiously steps over cracks in the sidewalk as he makes his morning walk to the neighborhood cafe where Carol works. When he shows up for breakfast one morning to find “his” table occupied, he loudly protests, “I’ve got Jews at my table.” Most of the time, though, Melvin’s invective seems tepid; the worst thing he calls Frank is “that colored man.” (Clearly, he hasn’t seen Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.)

Melvin begins his emotional makeover when Simon is badly beaten by hustlers let into his apartment by a life-study model (Skeet Ulrich). Frank insists that Melvin take care of Verdell, and soon the grouchy man is the dog’s best friend. From there, Melvin graduates to taking care of Simon himself and then to becoming Spencer’s guardian angel. (In the terms of an earlier Christmas entertainment, Spencer is Tiny Tim.) When Melvin insists that Carol accompany him and Simon on a trip to visit Simon’s parents near Baltimore, the stage is set for all sorts of revelations and transformations. Melvin even tells Carol that she has inspired him to start taking the pills his former shrink prescribed for him. (He doesn’t say what these are, but it’s safe to assume that they’re designed to modulate serotonin levels.)

As with Jerry Maguire, this is more engaging in practice than it may seem in synopsis. The dialogue—by Brooks and Mark Andrus, who wrote the original story—is witty and reasonably pointed, and the performances are winning. Nicholson isn’t entirely convincing as the sheep in wolf’s clothing—even when making nice, he still seems the wolf—but he’s lively and stylish. Hunt is a model of sitcom likability—wonder where she learned that?—and Kinnear has polished his technique since Sabrina. (He even does a Nicholson impression, a weird echo of Val Kilmer’s Brando in The Island of Dr. Moreau.)

It’s clear that all of Carol’s protests will ultimately yield to Melvin’s neediness; this is a romantic comedy, after all. At least credit Brooks with providing an almost-plausible pretext for the customary Hollywood casting of 60-year-old leading man and half-his-age ingénue. And if Nicholson is the dominant character, As Good as It Gets can be read as a parable of Hunt’s conquest—the ’60s Easy Rider domesticated by the ’90s sitcom star.

Brooks’ movie also plays as the sanitized version of Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen’s confrontational new comedy. Both revolve around a crabby, self-absorbed Manhattan novelist who has tortured relationships with women and a penchant for politically incorrect jibes. Where Brooks’ fictional hero can be saved, however, Allen’s semi-autobiographical one can’t. That makes As Good as It Gets both safer and more appealing. For a belief in the transfigurative power of love is as common among filmgoers as it is among Hollywood screenwriters.CP