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Good Will Hunting

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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Official Web site for GOOD WILL HUNTING

Good Will Hunting is the most conventional movie in director Gus Van Sant's career. After movies such as My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy, and To Die For, Van Sant looked to become the counter culture's voice in Hollywood. However, Good Will Hunting feels fairly anonymous, with few hallmark Van Sant touches, such as the flourishes of iambic pentameter verse in My Own Private Idaho. This doesn't mean Good Will Hunting isn't a good movie; I mention it as a warning for any Van Sant fans expecting another of his idiosyncratic cinematic approaches. Good Will Hunting is first-class Hollywood filmmaking--even if it feels a little like Van Sant is slumming as he produces a commercial, audience-pleasing film that won't offend anyone. If anything, it feels similar to Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker--which, not by coincidence, also stars Matt Damon, a charismatic, intense young actor who looks to be forging a name for himself as one of Hollywood's leading young actors.

In Good Will Hunting, Damon plays a 20-year-old genius with a photographic memory who hides his immense talents behind an uncaring, confrontational attitude. He and his friends cruise bars, looking for cold beer, easy women, and good bar fights (usually in that order). Due to the psychological scars left by the half-dozen foster homes he was raised in, where he was frequently abused, Will Hunting has little faith in himself. He works as a janitor at MIT (one of the major technological universities in the world). It's no coincidence that he works at MIT. He might be afraid of failure on one hand, but on the other hand, he knows that he is capable of much more than a manual labor existence.

One of Will Hunting's talents is math. When an MIT math professor (played by Stellan Skarsgard, who is also currently starring in Amistad) challenges students to solve a particularly nasty math problem--giving them an entire semester to work on the solution--Will Hunting takes one look at the problem posted in the hallway, sets down his mop, and begins writing the answer on the blackboard. Later that evening, word spreads that the problem has been solved. Thus begins Will's flirtation with the MIT math department. He can instantly solve math problems that have baffled MIT professors for years. But he also has a habit of getting locked up in jail for bar fights.

After some detective work, Skarsgard tracks down Will, finds him in jail, and agrees to pay his bail--on the condition that Will works with him AND agrees to see a therapist. Will agrees, but that doesn't mean he'll cooperate. "I'm pumped," he says sarcastically. "Let the healing begin!" After running off several therapists, however, he finally meets his match, Sean McGuire (Robin Williams)--a college professor who knows what it's like to carry emotional baggage.

One of the most surprising aspects of Good Will Hunting is the screenplay itself. Penned by Matt Damon and co-star Ben Affleck (of Chasing Amy), Good Will Hunting is an exceptionally intelligent movie that doesn't paint Will as a saint waiting to be discovered. He is a truly angry and vitriolic young man who can find someone's sensitive points after only a few seconds, and then, with words that cut like an operating room scalpel, he lacerates old wounds and pours in the salt. While Matt Damon takes the lead role, Ben Affleck gets most of the laughs. He plays Will Hunting's friend Chuckie. Together they work construction, but Chuckie secretly hopes that one day Will won't show up for work, that one day Will will start using his gift of intelligence and get a better job and a new life. Affleck gives one of the best supporting performances of the year as he ends up stealing virtually every scene he's in. Minnie Driver also scores as Will's girlfriend. Unlike her irritating performance in Grosse Pointe Blank, Driver gives a much more natural performance, even using her real British accent for the first time in a movie. And Robin Williams becomes the core of strength that the movie is built around. The vulnerability of his character, clearly on display as Sean McGuire struggles with the memories of his wife (now dead due to cancer), pushes Will to reassess his own isolation.

I wish the movie had shown us more scenes with Will reading books and studying. In fact, we only get one short camera shot of Will reading. With so little emphasis placed on how he acquires knowledge, the picture of Will Hunting seems incomplete. Regardless of how intelligent he is, the only way to gain the knowledge that he apparently possesses is by reading--by reading a tremendous number of books. But Will's devotion to books is almost completely absent from the movie. None of his friends are particularly intelligent, so his intelligence arose in a vacuum--all the more reason to emphasize the role of books in his life and his library-card education.

Nonetheless, Good Will Hunting is one of the best movies of the year. On a visual level, director Gus Van Sant's presence may be largely anonymous in Good Will Hunting, but his presence is felt in the performances. Possibly no other director in America works so well with young actors.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

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