(Review reposted in tribute to the recently deceased Robin Williams.)
Starring: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver, Ben Affleck
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer(s): Ben Affleck, Matt Damon
Runtime: 126 minutes
Official Score: 3.5 stars out of 5
In a way this movie is like Rain Man for jaded intellectuals. Will Hunting is every bit as advanced as Dustin Hoffman’s character was in areas such as possessing a photographic memory of every academic book known to man, and solving mathematical equations that would cause even Einstein to light his hair on fire. He also is just as emotionally regressed and unable to make effective decisions for himself, although in a markedly different and more easily concealed way than the aforementioned autistic Rain Man was. Unlike Rain Man though, and this is the big thing that separates him, Will has the option to escape his personal prison. In fact throughout this movie several people attempt to break him out of it, but the harder they try the more he seems to withdraw into his cell of solicitude.
Will Hunting was born with the ability to “play” as he describes it when it comes to matters of advanced academia. Yet, with all of that knowledge tucked inside his young cranium he chooses to spend his days running around Boston with his three hoodlum friends, picking fights with random locals and getting arrested numerous times for various misdemeanor offenses. He gets away with it all due to his amazing ability to defend himself in trial by quoting obscure laws and cases that impresses the local judges and gets him out of trouble most of the time.He currently spends his working hours as a janitor at a very prestigious local college that has one of those “academically famous” professors, here played by Stellan Skarsgard as Professor Gerald Lambeau, winner of the prestigious Field’s Medal in advanced mathematics, which is we are told, apparently only given out once every four years or so. One day the professor leaves an extra credit advanced math problem on the board for anyone to solve. No one can, except that is; the mysterious young janitor, who after doing so refuses to take credit and disappears back into his hole. This goes on and on until one day said professor catches Will at his game at a hallway blackboard, and thinking him a vandal, attempts to chase him down. Upon closer inspection though, he discovers that this is none other than the kid with the golden chalk. Will, feeling cornered, quits his janitorial job, and were it not for the timely decision making of a judge who finally gets fed up with Will’s legal dog and pony show and sentences his intellectual behind to jail, without passing go, or collecting two hundred dollars.
This is of course when Professor Lambeau steps in and gets the judge to agree to release Will into his custody, provided of course that he begin some much needed therapy sessions, post haste. Aside from therapy of course, Lambeau mainly wants to spend time with Will and see just how his brain works. He also sets him up with many interesting job opportunities that will shoots down in increasingly creative displays of rebellion.Will makes an especially challenging project for therapists though, as the movie spends considerable time showing him outwitting and bewildering several of them in equally amusing fasions, until finally, none other than Robin Williams, who plays Dr. Sean Maguire in one of the finest roles of his career, must be called upon to save the day. Maguire succeeds where the others fail, not only because of his tough skin and ability to trade intellectual barbs with Will, but because of his desire to connect with Will as a human being, and not as some intellectual guinea pig, like Will surmises most of the others picture him as.
It’s not just the professionals and academics who are trying to save Will though. His group of roughneck friends, and chiefly his best friend Chuckie, played by real life best Ben Affleck all aspire to see him use his potential to better his circumstances and get out of Southie for good. Everyone watches in frustration as he continues to piss his future away. This includes his friends who could only dream of the opportunity that his abilities afford him and the professors and assorted professional intellectuals who watch with tortured resignation while this young punk kid performs academic feats with ease, that they’ve had to spend their entire lives to merely be able to grasp.
This is at times a very heavy handed and somewhat predictable story of personal redemption. There’s not a whole lot you won’t see coming a mile away here, but that doesn’t make the journey any less enjoyable really. This film may not contain great surprises but there are however many great performances and a lot of well written dialogue contained within it. Matt Damon here, in his breakout role, is pitch perfect as the tortured genius. Him and Affleck, who wrote this movie, deservedly won the Oscar for best screenplay for this motion picture. The best scenes involve him using his IQ to best local bullies at college bars. You know you’re in a weird niche community when even the bar bullies attempt their one-upmanship by quoting Yeats and Shakespeare at you. I think I’d prefer a good punch in the snout myself. Other high points include a long and well thought out monologue of him turning down a job at the NSA for reasons that turned out to be eerily prophetic considering today’s headlines.
Robin Williams is also tremendous here in a role that saw him win the Oscar for best supporting actor in 1997. No one else could have played this role quite like Williams did here. Williams here turns his usual funny man persona on its head and is the perfect mix of a father figure and a sympathetic character with his own arc as well. Williams’ character has several long speeches like the following that he makes to Will and they are all said with great eloquence and heartfelt emotion. “You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, you’d probably ah throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap… and watched him gasp his last breath lookin’ to you for help. If I asked you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet, but you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes.” It’s that great combination of writing and amazing performances (along with a novel premise) that help this movie overcome what is a very predictable and run of the mill plot admittedly.
Along with Williams, Minnie Driver also shines here in perhaps the most unsung role of the movie. Her character falls in love with Will, as she reportedly fell in love with Matt Damon in real life here, and she has many wonderful and heartbreaking moments in the film as the two of them struggle to find true intimacy while Will continues to push anyone away from him who threatens to break down his comfortable line of defense mechanisms. The movie is directed by Gus Van Zant who definitely knows what he’s doing here as far as directing this great dialogue.
This is an uplifting and heartwarming movie, perhaps to a fault. It’s so uplifting and heartwarming in fact that it has become the cliché movie of that particular genre. If you can stomach that sort of thing, which I found I could without too many problems, you will find a lot to admire about Good Will Hunting. This is the kind of movie that, when it’s made well, is a very wonderful thing to behold indeed. With just a few wrong turns though, this could have easily turned into a Lifetime movie of the week. Thankfully, there was simply too much talent congregated here to allow anything of that sort from transpiring. My final verdict, while this is not quite a classic in my estimation it contains a lot of classic material, and performances that make it a worthy watch for any lover of good movies.
And the sequel looks pretty good too.