As Good As It Gets is a title that's asking for trouble, but even if the new film from James L. Brooks doesn't live up to that billing, it's an often delightful showcase for its two stars, Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. A decidedly offbeat spin on romantic comedy, this tale of an eccentric misanthrope's evolution into a human being is stronger on characterization than narrative drive, but without a doubt it offers up one of the year's more original movie protagonists.

'Brace Yourself for Melvin,' say the ads-a proper warning about Nicholson's Melvin Udall, an improbably successful romance novelist whose extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder keeps him squirreled away in his New York apartment and unable to deal with other people with anything resembling civility. An equal-opportunity bigot, he lashes out at the world with an almost gleefully vile disregard for political correctness. His most frequent target is Simon (Greg Kinnear), the gay artist who lives across the hall. The one person in New York he actually seems to like is Carol (Hunt), the harried waitress who serves him the same breakfast each day at his neighborhood diner. Melvin's carefully controlled routine is forced to change when Carol, a single mother, announces she's leaving to care for her chronically ill son, and Simon is viciously beaten by some young street thugs. Simon's quick-tempered art dealer (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) intimidates Melvin into taking care of Simon's homely little dog (the same dog Melvin threw down a garbage chute in the opening scene), and Melvin finds himself strangely disarmed by the little creature's dubious charms. Meanwhile, more out of self-interest than any compassion for Carol's plight, Melvin arranges for her son to see a high-priced specialist who offers the first sign of hope for the boy and his weary mom. Carol suspects a not-so-subtle quid pro quo when Melvin expresses his fondness for her, and much of the rest of the movie is consumed by this unlikely pair's wobbly negotiation of the terms of their relationship. The dog, meantime, becomes a link between feuding neighbors Melvin and Simon, who wind up taking a revelatory road trip to Baltimore, accompanied by Carol.

As you can see, Brooks and Mark Andrus' script is not an easy one to sum up, and the film itself doesn't totally overcome its rather diffuse nature. This is nothing new for Brooks, whose earlier films-Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and I'll Do Anything-all possess a rambling, episodic quality that favors character exploration over tight storytelling. If you can accept Brooks' priorities as a filmmaker, you'll enjoy As Good As It Gets, as few writers-directors are so enamored of the messy, contradictory, neurotic aspects of human relationships. Brooks gives his characters plenty of time and space to make the journey from Point A (Antagonism) to Point C (Caring), and it's a pleasure watching his actors rise to the challenge.

Melvin is a different sort of character role for Nicholson, completely antithetical to his offscreen image as one of the coolest guys in moviedom. The writer's obsessive-compulsive disorder makes him nearly incapable of functioning in society: He recoils in the presence of other people, his daily routine is fixed in stone, and he can't even enjoy a simple walk out of fear of stepping on a crack in the pavement. Melvin is such an extreme character that his transformation isn't totally convincing-his affection for Simon's dog seems to come out of the blue-but Nicholson makes comic gold out of this grouch's internal battle with his better impulses. (The actor delivers insults with such smiling conviction, we almost regret it when Melvin mellows.)

Hunt is thoroughly charming in a movie breakthrough that could very well earn her an Oscar nomination. In the early scenes, she really makes us feel her character's anguish, fatigue and loneliness (her profane outburst against HMOs gets the movie's biggest reaction), and it's touching when Carol finally gets a break and begins to blossom, even if her good fortune is tied to a miserable creature like Melvin. As Simon, former 'Talk Soup' host Kinnear proves he has the goods for a movie career, keeping his character on a non-stereotypical plane and communicating the pain of an artist who's fallen on bad times. After his dynamic performance in Jerry Maguire, Gooding is strangely underutilized in a role that disappears midway through the film.

As Good As It Gets isn't the best of James L. Brooks, but it has more than enough of his quirky humor, charm and compassion to be a solid contender this holiday season.

--Kevin Lally