Good Will Hunting (1997)

D: Gus Van Sant
S: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver

Will Hunting, a combative young man from South Boston with enormous intelligence and a gift for mathematics (Matt Damon) prefers to spend his days hanging out with his buddies, drinking beer and brawling with rival gangs. But when he completes a complex mathematical problem written on a blackboard at MIT as a test for advanced graduate students, he comes to the attention of mathematics professor Stellan Skarsgard, who wants to save him from himself and direct him towards a career in higher math. He arranges for this, but the boy's emotional instability (and a court order) requires he attend therapy sessions, eventually with troubled widower Robin Williams. Eventually a bond of respect grows between man and boy. Meanwhile Damon falls in love with medical student Minnie Driver, and finds that growing close to someone is not something he can handle. The threads of plot come to a head as therapy progresses until a frozen moment of classic Freudian self-discovery sets up a resolution.

"Big Man Tate" would be a smartass alternative title for this well meaning and well made but very obvious and sometimes overstated drama. Considering the script was written by twentysomething co-stars Damon and Ben Affleck, it is quite an achievement to have cornered a director as capable as Van Sant. With good casting, strong performances and an uncluttered style, this film is better than it deserves to be, which is to say that it is as good as it ever could have been given what it had to start with.

This is a kind of spiritual sequel to Dead Poets Society, where young people lead the way for older ones and rebel against the repressive system which fails to understand and accommodate them. That it features Robin Williams in a similarly extended supporting role comes then not so much as a co-incidence, but as a cosmic inevitability. Those who enjoyed the former film at the age of twelve or so will doubtlessly revere this one also.

And like Dead Poets Society, there is nothing very much wrong with it. It offers many pleasures for the tolerant viewer and successfully negotiates its way through familiar territory with a careful and delicate balance of elements. Van Sant has done a terrific job of keeping what is essentially a series of psychotherapy sessions (both inside an office and out) moving along as a cinematic narrative. Damon is outstanding in the lead, backed by a uniformly excellent supporting cast. Williams tries very hard once again to sustain a dramatic performance, and turns in one of his most subdued to date, but he still struggles with a repressed manic energy which really remains his strongest card, and repressing it does not necessarily make him a better actor.

But it does tend towards the obvious as a voyage of personal self-discovery, and its insights and observations about class and ethnicity are really just window dressing. The overlaying Irish atmosphere and some speeches about the role and function of the working class in modern America do not really contribute an authentic social context from which the drama proceeds. The predetermined "education" movie formula drives it, and the rest, workable as it is, is necessarily not surprising.

There are a lot of dramatic tidbits here, including child abuse, professional competitiveness, alcoholism, intelligentsia versus proletariat, loss, regret and blame, but the film has a tendency to offer them as pearls of wisdom when they are as predictable as the film's eventual resolution. Nothing about this film is truly different from what we have seen before in this genre. The overlay of psychoanalysis provides it with an end of millennium water mark which will make it of interest in years to come, but does not necessarily make it better or worse than what has gone before.

What is worthwhile is watching its cast ply their trade, and enjoying a smooth, well-made film unfold without becoming taxing. The danger is that what is ultimately a good film will be elevated to the status of a great one simply by virtue of its mass of good intentions. Good Will Hunting is not necessarily a cut above the norm, it's just that the norm has become so weak in recent years that both audiences and critics are starved for something with even a modicum of quality (look at the overenthusiastic response to L.A. Confidential, or worse, Titanic). Still, there's nothing wrong with a solid piece of dramatic film making and Good Will Hunting is worthwhile if not essential viewing.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.