In Mike D’Angelo’s most recent “Performance Review” column, Mike questioned whether the OCD (and possible ASD) symptoms of Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets really explain the character being such a “nightmarishly rude” asshole, which prompted the following reply by Chapman Baxter:
As someone who has OCD I must take slight issue with Mike D’Angelo’s assertion that Melvyn Udall’s “nightmarishly rude” and cranky attitude in As Good As It Gets has nothing to do with his diagnosed condition. Although I’m not proud to admit it, I know from experience how a constant compulsion to do methodical rituals and the perpetual anxiety of intrusive thoughts can make one behave in quite an irritable and anti-social manner. Of course Udall’s psychiatric condition doesn’t remotely justify this behaviour, far less his tendency towards bigotry, but to say that there’s no connection is, in my opinion and from what I’ve observed with some other OCD sufferers, somewhat erroneous. As Good As It Gets certainly isn’t a flattering portrayal of a person with OCD and one certainly can’t generalise with respect to Udall’s behaviour, but it does highlight some ugly truths about some people with the condition. Of course, maybe I’m simply just an asshole and my occasional crankiness is entirely unrelated to my psychiatric condition but according to most of the people I know I’m an extremely amiable, friendly, tolerant, easy-going person under most circumstances, and it’s only when one of my obsessions becomes particularly intense that I have to restrain myself from acting like a total jerk.
I’d also argue from working with and knowing many adults and children with Asperger Syndrome that their condition does not tend to manifest in the intentionally rude and mean-spirited manner Udall conducts himself. People with Asperger Syndrome, and other forms of low-level autism, tend to be quite unaware of what others perceive as their rudeness/coldness. It’s very rare for a person with this condition to lash out with the targeted racism and homophobic invective Udall displays, since they would, for the most part, lack the empathy to understand how hurtful such abuse could be. Suffice to say, I don't think there’s any psychiatric condition that directly manifests in the offensive way Udall behaves in the early stages of the film (which is why he rightly gets such little sympathy from Helen Hunt and others for his bigoted outbursts), but from personal experience I think the filmmakers’ decision to use his OCD as a reason why he might end up displaying such deplorable personality traits makes perfect sense.
CB, I wanted to spotlight your comment not just because of its helpful personal insight, but because your impressions of the Udall character are so different from how a lot of people with first-hand knowledge of a subject feel about movies that deal with that subject. The internet practically runs on “What ____ gets wrong about ____” articles, in which astrophysicists scoff at Gravity, or stock-brokers refute The Wolf Of Wall Street, or plantation-owners take issue with 12 Years A Slave. (Okay, I made that last one up.) With you and Mike, we have a counter-example. Mike found the OCD explanation in As Good As It Gets to be insufficient and overly convenient; for you, it rings true.
I’ve had similar experiences to yours. Ever since my son was diagnosed with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder—he’s a high-functioning autist—I’ve watched movies about autistic characters with a keener eye than I would’ve before, and generally I’ve found that most of them get the condition more right than wrong. Even Rain Man, which codified “what autism is like” for a generation, and which I re-watched post-diagnosis expecting to despise, shows a lot more sensitivity than I’d recalled about the how and why of Raymond Babbitt. (My main issue with Rain Man, and with a lot of the movies about autism that followed, is that they tend to focus on the disorder as a challenge for everyone but the actual autists, thus denying the disordered their own personalities and desires.)
Still, I’m sure Mike would agree that even if As Good As It Gets gets OCD right, if it plays as phony to the inexperienced viewer, then something is off. I try not to get too caught up in “what Nashville gets wrong about Nashville”-type analysis, because movies need to have the license to fudge facts in the name of telling a good story. On the flipside, I find “that’s how it actually happened” to be a shaky defense whenever a reality-based movie comes across contrived. But in either case, whether a movie shrugs off reality entirely or holds to it so closely that it feels false, we’re left with a situation where two people with similar tastes can end up seeing the same movie in an entirely different way, because of extra-textual factors. And that’s tricky, from both the viewers’ side and the filmmakers’ side, to know how much personal knowledge to bring to bear.
All things being equal, I’d rather writers, directors, and actors at least try to ground their movies in reality, even if they run the risk of making a distracting mistake or getting too caught up in details that don’t matter. Personally, I’m more thrown out of a movie when the circumstances are lazily generic—when, for example, one character is concerned about whether or not she’s “going to be promoted to regional manager,” and it’s obvious that nobody involved with the film has any idea what that literally means. But I understand why filmmakers hedge, and why they often refuse to pin down a character’s job, or disorder. Specificity provokes scrutiny, and some movies aren’t strong enough to bear it.
We’ll be searching through article comments for future installments of “Feedback.” Or you can email us privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.