Good Will Hunting (1997) *** 1/2
What makes a genius be a genius? One clue in this film is that its hero Will Hunting has a photographic memory to end all memories. But then, the great philosopher Henri Bergson, whose works include the seminal "Matter and Memory" (1896), used to say that "Memory is the intelligence of imbeciles." So a one-in-a-gazillion case like Will's must ally memory and stupendous intelligence. But what is intelligence of this caliber? Never mind. Will Hunting is a young, tough Southie (from working-class South Boston) whose miserable childhood (genes are not mentioned) has led to verbal, mental and physical aggressiveness outside his small circle of buddies. Self-taught through gobbling up books in public libraries, Will is a genius in mathematics, perhaps in other areas too.
One of his idiosyncrasies is refusing to join Establishments of any kind, from universities to government. (In a bar, there's a great, on-the-nose scene that satirizes Academe and academics). Having opted for menial jobs, he is currently a janitor at the prestigious M.I.T. As he sweeps a hallway he spots a problem posted by a famous mathematician, Professor Lambeau, a major award-winner. The puzzle that defies the best graduate students and their teachers too is solved by Wil in a jiffy.
Prof. Lambeau tracks down the mysterious and uncooperative savant. As Will is psychologically troubled, a street fracas leads him to court. His long rap-sheet results in a $50,000 bond. The judge is talked into placing Will in Lambeau's custody, for teaching and therapy. In a series of funny vignettes, sundry psychologists give up on the young man. As a last resort Lambeau enlists reluctant Sean McGuire (Robin Williams). The two men used to be university classmates but fell out. Lambeau went on to glory, McGuire to counseling and to teaching in a community college. The odd relations between the two are among the film's strong points.
Defensive, aggressive and cynical at first, second, and third, Will slowly relents, especially as he becomes aware that Sean is another wounded soul -- in great part because the death of his wife devastated him. Patient and analyst become good for each other and bond. Will's "cure" is also aided by an affair with Brit (and Harvard medical student) Skylar (Minnie Driver).
The movie originated as a short story by Matt Damon, an assignment in creative writing when he was at Harvard. Damon and childhood friend Ben Affleck then joined forces to transform the story into a movie script. Conceived as a thriller, the scenario evolved into a character-driven tale. Its production took the writers through the usual odyssey of film projects.
Maverick Gus Van Sant, has now directed a movie with mainstream appeal and predictable developments. But is the subject also of a mainstream nature? Not really. It may create that impression but deep down its is original, offbeat.
American films are like the USA itself. They are built on a grand scale far more often than in other national cinemas. They deal with superlatives. "Good Will Hunting" does not have the gigantism of views, crowds, actions or disasters, yet it fits the superlative label with Will's mind being extra-extraordinary. Will is a Superman of the mind and the intellect, which by itself makes the film a rarity, especially in the way it also weaves in the intimate Will.
In acting, working parts and details the movie rises above deja vu yarns. The rich dialogue runs from pungent to "intellectual" to touching as Will gets "tamed" and Sean comes to terms with his own wounds. The process can be slow in terms of screen time, but that's a necessity when you don't have the characters magically undergo transformations with Hollywoodian celerity. It's all interesting and un-cliched, except in an audience-courting bit in which Will abandons his last-ditch defensiveness when he finds out that Sean too is a dedicated baseball fan. Yet even this cliche is handled with originality. In plot development and spoken lines, there's a great deal of first-rate writing here, by first-time writers too!
Robin Williams delivers a class A performance, with distant affinities to that of "Dead Poets Society." Serious, touching yet humorous, he is lively but not maniacal, frenzied or agitated, does not make with the jokes as usual. His portrayal is affecting, even memorable in many a scene. The one of his long speech by the river is heart-rending. Ranking four stars for its moving eloquence about love, it is also a superb Valentine to his dead wife.
Whether or not Damon has the great looks and sex-appeal often mentioned in the press is not for me to judge, but as a performer he too is striking , complex and complicated. as in his relationships with Skylar and all others. His longest speech is a socially-conscious mini-gem that gives his reasons for not going to NASA.
Minnie Driver was last seen on the big screen as disc the delightful, kooky disc-jockey Debi in "Grosse Pointe Blank." On the small screen she recently appeared on the Jay Leno show -- wrongly and bustily dressed. She's back to charming us in "GWH."
Swedish actor Skarsgard hits the bull's-eye as big-time mathematician Lambeau, who is astounded, admirative, discreetly jealous and upset before the genius of the street-kid prole.
The movie misses out on just one thing, its title. Not catchy, too cute, making little sense, it sounds like a hunt for bargains at GoodWill Industries.