February 10, 1998
by Matt Kessler
Good Will Hunting is the new movie by Gus Van Sant about a 20 year old genius who would rather go to bars with his friends than work on math problems with his intellectual equals. The script was written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and in the movie, Damon is Will Hunting, the aforementioned genius, and Ben Affleck is Will's best friend. The movie never quite reaches the tender moments that it promises and its anti-establishment ideology is nullified by its syrupy sweet Hollywood feel.
Damon is a janitor at MIT and the school's star professor Stellan Skarsgard notices that Damon is quickly solving the problems which are supposed to be very challenging for the best students there. When Skarsgard goes in search of the young prodigy, he eventually finds him in court and on his way to jail. Skarsgard is able to get Damon off the hook by explaining the boy's talent to the judge and making sure that Damon devotes at least three hours a week discussing mathematics with him and one hour discussing his problems with a psychiatrist. After a series of candidates, Robin Williams is finally agreed upon as the psychiatrist and after a shaky start, Damon and Williams begin to hit it off. They form a father-son relationship which is responsible for some of the most tender moments in the film.
Had the film centered more around the relationship between Williams and Damon instead of just Damon, the movie might have been more successful. Instead, however, Van Sant's portrait of Will Hunting is hardly believable. Most unbelievable is the scene of Will reading a 200 page book in 3 minutes. A close second is Will's ability to recognize every allusion that another man makes to obscure history books. The list goes on.
Most of the performances are average. Williams is perhaps best playing the psychiatrist with the heart of gold, but this is a fairly easy role. Damon is convincing enough as Will, but he doesn't own the role which is vital in order for this to be the great movie that it wishes to be. Minnie Driver is pretty good as Will's girlfriend, but in one confrontational scene that the two have she hams it up too much and makes the scene implausible and nauseating.
The movie proudly sports an anti-establishment sense of values which are debunked by the overall sitcom feel of the movie. Will gets drunk a lot and takes minimum wage jobs when he could be at MIT doing problems all day long. Rather, Will is in a dilemma because in his heart he prefers to work, but he tries to trick himself into believing that he would rather hang out with his cronies. The "hip" scenes with his friends are as unbelievable as all hipster scenes in the movies these days. They act like frat boys, and we all know there is nothing hip about that. They get drunk, make perverted jokes, and beat people up. Exciting, huh? All the time, however, the morals and wit of these situations are straight out of a sitcom. Damon tells joke that I might have considered funny in 7th grade, but now I just found downright distracting from the rest of the movie.
The movie is tender and captivating at times though. Although very poorly directed throughout (e.g. Will tells a story about his father abusing him and the film switches to a shadow filled room and centers in on a staircase and all you can hear are echoes and Will's narration. Van Sant ripped off Charter and that is quite low.) there are some scenes which are done very well. In one scene, for instance, Williams and Damon excitedly discuss Carlton Fisk's home run off the foul pole and it is correlated with shoots from the actual event. Mostly, however, Van Sant succeeds in the simple shoots of Williams and Damon sitting in the office and just talking. The movie's poor portrait of Will Hunting is what makes this movie unenjoyable.
The movie which in my mind most successively depicts a genius is Amadeus by Milos Forman because it focuses on his idiosyncrasies rather than his perfection. Good Will Hunting is sweet, tender, and on an ironic note fairly precious. I left the theaters feeling not like I had wasted my money or my time, but rather that I'd seen a mediocre movie.