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Good Will Hunting (1997)

Classic American films: Good Will Hunting – the 10 best quotes from 1997  education drama | South China Morning Post

DIRECTOR: Gus Van Sant

CAST: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgard, Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser

REVIEW:

Good Will Hunting could be summed up as an ordinary story well-told, but that verges on an oversimplification of what a difference a strong script, strong direction, and a strong cast can make. On its most basic level, it’s a formulaic coming-of-age narrative about a self-destructive young man and the friends he makes along the way who pull him back from the edge and help him recognize his own potential, and could have easily become mawkish and saccharine. But Good Will Hunting uses an edge to avoid excessive sappiness (even if it’s ultimately a “feel good” experience) and an intelligently-written script (by co-stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who took home Oscar gold for Best Screenplay), Gus Van Sant’s direction which culls genuine emotion from his actors, and a surfeit of strong performances (including one that gained Robin Williams an Oscar, and nominations for Damon and Minnie Driver) turns what could have been generic and formulaic into a powerful and affecting drama.

The titular Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is an unsung math genius and high school dropout who works as a bricklayer with his underachieving posse of buddies (Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser) while also roaming the halls of MIT as a janitor and casually anonymously proving theorems on the math building halls’ blackboards. The anonymous math whiz confounds both students and faculty, but one day Will’s anonymity comes to an end when he’s caught in the act by Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) who initially takes him for a vandal and runs him off, then is shocked to realize he solved a convoluted mathematical problem that had challenged even the Professor. But Will is a troubled young man. As an orphan child, he was in and out of foster homes on a regular basis and a frequent victim of severe abuse, and as a young man, he has a lengthy rap sheet and a short fuse. By the time Professor Lambeau tracks him down, he’s in jail for assault. Lambeau secures his release on two conditions: that he come to work with Lambeau, and attend court-ordered therapy sessions. Eventually, after the prickly Will proves too much of a handful for several therapists, Lambeau turns to his old college roommate Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a local community college professor. Will and Sean get off to a rocky start, but gradually form a rapport, and Sean slowly goads Will into exploring unresolved trauma and emotional issues walled off behind a sarcastic and belligerent demeanor. Meanwhile, Will strikes up a budding romance with Harvard student Skylar (Minnie Driver), but his unresolved issues hamper his ability to both function in a healthy relationship and unlock his full potential.

Skylar and Will | Good will hunting, Good will hunting movie, Matt damon

The overall narrative arc of Good Will Hunting is formulaic, and doesn’t really go in any unpredictable or surprising directions. The strength is all in the execution. The characters are well-developed and feel like real people, and Damon and Affleck’s script has a good ear for how they might actually talk (easily offended viewers be forewarned that this comes with plenty of unabashedly profane dialogue and raunchy conversations; there’s no graphic sex or violence, but the movie earns its R rating through dialogue alone). There’s some snappy one-liners (Will mocks an early “bonding” session with Sean as a “Taster’s Choice Moment”), and Will goes on a breathless, brilliant diatribe against the NSA that sounds like something Kevin Smith might have come up with (actually, considering Smith is credited as an executive producer, this isn’t outside the realm of possibility). There’s an edginess to some of the Will/Sean therapy sessions, along with a flow of conversation during their gradual bonding that feels unscripted and natural; along with more straightforward therapy stuff about unresolved childhood trauma and attachment disorders, they also get offtrack into talking about baseball and Sean telling the story of how he met his wife (reportedly, some of this dialogue was improvised between Matt Damon and Robin Williams). In addition to the credible rapport that forms between Damon and Williams, there’s also electric chemistry between Damon and Minnie Driver (not altogether surprising, considering the two became romantically involved during filming). Likewise, the companionability between real-life best friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck translates to the screen; Will and Chuckie’s friendship feels real and natural. There’s any number of powerful and affecting individual scenes, including Robin Williams’ older, wiser Sean shooting down Will’s sarcastic deflections and delivering a pitch-perfect speech about life and experience that might be among the best onscreen monologues to come along in some time. There’s also an amusing bit where Will shows his superior intellect and humiliates a snooty would-be romantic rival who makes the mistake of underestimating him. Then there’s the searingly emotionally-charged confrontation between Will and Skylar late in the movie (a case could be made for Oscar nominations for both Matt Damon and Minnie Driver on the basis of this scene alone), and a powerful, cathartic moment between Will and Sean (“it’s not your fault”). Even if the overall story is somewhat generic, the movie is worthwhile on the basis of several tremendous individual scenes alone.

Good Will Hunting (1997) - IMDb

Good Will Hunting sports four strong principal performances. Matt Damon is terrific, plumbing depths of genuine emotion and bringing Will to living, breathing life in his pugnaciousness, his quick-witted sarcasm (deployed as a deflecting weapon), his brilliant mathematical genius, and a tightly-guarded vulnerability. It’s refreshing to come across an all-too-rare movie character who’s a genuinely unique and interesting individual, and Damon’s Will is vibrant and multi-faceted enough to be worth an investment of time and attention. Robin Williams provides a solid foil/match as the older, wiser Sean. Williams imbues his performance with a little subdued humor, but the manic zany comedian he’s best-known as is firmly tamped-down in favor of a low-key, restrained performance that’s by turns sad and wise, funny and somber, all with a pitch-perfect understatement that should eliminate any doubts that Williams is fully capable of toning himself down and playing a role completely straight (the most animated and the closest to “Robin Williams” he ever gets is in an exuberant recollection of a baseball game). Minnie Driver offers another forceful demonstration that her marvelous debut in 1995’s Circle of Friends was no one-hit wonder. While her role here is a supporting one, she makes an impression, adding another strong performance to a growing up-and-coming filmography (and it’s nice that she’s allowed to keep her natural English accent here rather than attempting an American one). Rounding out the principals is Stellan Skarsgard, whose Lambeau is arguably the most antagonistic character but isn’t treated as the “villain” he might have been in a more simplistic, less-intelligent script. While the Will/Sean dynamic is the focal point, there’s a parallel one running in the background between Sean and Lambeau, old college roommates whose lives went in different directions and who clash over old resentments and insecurities. Also conflicted is the dynamic between Will and Lambeau; Lambeau is able to recognize and appreciate genius, but also agonizingly aware that it is out of his grasp, and his motives threaten to confuse helping Will achieve his full potential with trying to live vicariously through him, and with having love/hate feelings toward the boy. Lambeau has spent his entire life driving himself to be the best mathematician he can be, yet must stand by helplessly and watch a high school dropout and delinquent effortlessly and almost out of casual boredom solve theorems even Lambeau is confounded by (“most days I wish I’d never met you”, he confesses at one point). Adequate support is provided by Ben Affleck, his real-life brother Casey Affleck, and Cole Hauser, and there’s a cameo by journalist George Plimpton as one of the therapists who finds Will too much to handle.

There’s no shocking, unpredictable surprise twists and turns in Good Will Hunting‘s narrative trajectory; it’s not that kind of movie. But it’s also proof that a familiar path well-traveled isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it’s traversed with a sharp script, sure-handed direction, and strong acting. Good Will Hunting possesses those qualities in abundance, and that’s what elevates a potentially generic and formulaic feel good drama into a powerful and affecting motion picture.

* * * 1/2

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