Good Will Hunting
Screenplay : Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Matt Damon (Will Hunting), Robin Williams (Sean McGuire), Ben Affleck (Chuckie), Minnie Driver (Skylar), Stellan Skarsgard (Lambeau), Casey Affleck (Morgan), Cole Hauser (Billy)
Genius is a strange thing, a true rarity, that comes along maybe once in a generation. And, because genius doesn't recognize arbitrary aspects of life such as race, gender, or class, it can find itself embodied anywhere.
In Gus Van Sant's "Good Will Hunting," this rare genius is embodied in a confused, embattled 20-year-old janitor at MIT named Will Hunting (Matt Damon). Will is a certified genius whose mind is literally inconceivable: he can read an entire book in minutes, memorize historical facts without effort, and solve complex mathematical theorems that have taken university professors years to master.
However, the film makes it clear early on that Will is no ordinary brain-child. He didn't come from a home with parents who could send him to college to develop and master his talents. Instead, he lived his life bouncing from foster home to foster home, often enduring physical abuse until he eventually wound up on his own, with only his neighborhood buddies, Chuckie (Ben Affleck), Morgan (Casey Affleck), and Billy (Cole Hauser) to support him. Together, they cruise the bars in Boston, drinking and fighting their way from street to street.
Will falls into the hands of Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), a mathematics professor at MIT who realizes the boy's astounding gifts. After Will is arrested for assault (his rap sheet is about a mile long, but he's gotten off almost every time by citing almost-forgotten legalities from the 18th century) Lambeau helps him avoid jail. Lambeau gets him probation, but only on the condition that Will will work mathematics with him, and see a therapist on a regular basis. If he doesn't, he will go to jail.
Will doesn't mind working math with the professor, but he resists the therapy, which he views as beneath him. Because he is so smart, Will knows how to get to the therapists before they get to him. After he runs off five of them, Lambeau asks an old college buddy, Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), to give it a shot. We know very little about Sean when we first meet him, other than he teaches a classroom of dullards at Bunker Hill Community College, hardly a bastion of great thinking. But we immediately suspect that there is something special and wounded about him, something he possesses that the other therapists didn't. As the film progresses, we get to see into Sean as much as we see into Will, and why they are so perfect for each other.
This is hardly an original plot device, and in fact, the whole therapy-session-as-excuse-to-show-character-development has been worn thin by countless other movies. However, "Good Will Hunting" manages to infuse enough fire and life into its individual scenes that we forget that a great deal of it is contrived. The relationship between Will and Sean is developed along rocky, but believable and ultimately affirming lines.
The screenplay, penned by co-stars and childhood friends Damon and Affleck, shows a great of deal maturity and understanding for a couple of actors in their late twenties. Sometimes the therapy jargon is a little cliche, a risk that is always inherent when probing into characters' psyches via the psychiatrist's couch. But the joy of watching the characters come out of their protective shells is worth the bumps along the way.
There is also a romance involved, between Will and a Harvard student named Skylar (Minnie Driver). Unfortunately, this is the weakest and least-developed aspect of the otherwise finely tuned plot. The romance develops too quickly for its own good, and as a love story is ironically overshadowed by the love story between the two men -- Will and Sean. The relationship between Will and Skylar never really catches on until it is ending, when Will pushes her away because he fears losing her first.
The film was directed by Gus Van Sant ("My Own Private Idaho," "To Die For"), and this is far and beyond his most mainstream work. In fact, he was brought into the production late, after several other directors had come and gone. Van Sant gives the film a few small touches that another director might have left off, but for the most part he directs the film in a clear, straight-forward manner. In fact, it is only when he tries to get too artsy, as in an extended fight scene filmed in unnecessary and confusing slow motion, that he slips up. "Good Will Hunting" is above all a character-driven story, and Van Sant wisely leaves most of the stage open to his talented actors, all of whom do impressive jobs.
Damon, who first caught attention in small roles as a anti-Semitic student in "School Ties" and a confused soldier in "Courage Under Fire," made his first major step to stardom earlier this year in "John Grisham's The Rainmaker." Here he solidifies that stardom. As Will Hunting, he is forced to play a wide range of emotions. Will is essentially a street kid with a big brain, who has been through a great deal of suffering in his short life. Damon projects his character as someone who has been wounded so many times, that he has built up nearly indestructible walls around him that keep him protected, but also keep others out. (Damon is probably all the more impressive because he is not merely playing someone else's creation, but bringing to life a character he helped develop).
As Sean, Robin Williams once again is so good in a tricky dramatic role that he makes us ask why he bothers with movies like "Flubber." Williams has developed as an actor to the point that he doesn't need those kinds of movies anymore. He is best in roles like this, where he plays an intelligent adult with a keen sense of humor and an insight into people. It was this same kind of character that brought out his best in "Dead Poets Society" and "Good Morning, Vietnam."
Overall, "Good Will Hunting" is an enjoyable experience. It delves deep enough into the human dilemma that it can challenge its viewers, but not so much that it becomes cumbersome and too self-important. The ending is terribly predictable and almost too simplistic for an otherwise fine film, but it is far from detrimental. It will be very interesting to see what Damon and Affleck come up with next.
©1997 James Kendrick