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Review: Genius is as genius does in 'Good Will Hunting'

Scene from the film December 8, 1997
Web posted at: 4:46 p.m. EST (2146 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Matt Damon is my favorite new movie star, and it shocks me to find myself admitting it. After having the agreeable but none-too-exciting Matthew McConaughey pre-digested and forced down our throats as the Next Big Thing a couple years back, I eyed the spate of recent magazine covers featuring Damon's toothsome grin with more than a little bit of leftover disdain. However, after fully enjoying Damon's subtle performance in "The Rainmaker" and now having seen his equally impressive but altogether different work in "Good Will Hunting," I have to say that I'm a true believer.

'Good Will Hunting'
  • Full film trailer (VXtreme Video)
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  • In both films Damon manages to be ingratiating without jumping through good lookin' movie star hoops, and he already shows signs of having real range. If you have to compare, let's compare him to the "Somebody Up There Likes Me"-era Paul Newman and hope that he can continue to grow as Newman did, without compromising the charisma that he so effortlessly generates on screen.

    Damon and his real-life childhood best friend, actor Ben Affleck, wrote the screenplay for, and also perform together, in "Good Will Hunting." The "Will" of that unfortunate title is Damon's character, a hot-headed Irish kid who (along with his best friends, the closest being Affleck's Chuckie) is fighting and drinking his way through life in Boston's working-class bars. Though he's perceived as nothing more than an M.I.T. janitor with a lengthy police record, Will is perfectly content carousing his life away with his buddies in this salt-of-the-earth milieu. He's simply one of the guys. The only thing that separates him from his friends is that he happens to be a genius.

    Scene from the film

    But that doesn't mean that he's good at memorizing batting averages. Will is an out-and-out Einstein-level math whiz. He also has a photographic memory, and can casually reel off historical facts and economic theories like he's ordering another pint of Guinness. After a professor at the Institute (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers that the surly janitor he's argued with in the hallway is capable of off-handedly deciphering mathematical equations that leave his graduate students staring blankly at the chalkboard, Will is taken under the professor's wing. The police (he was in jail for striking an officer) have placed one provision upon Will's release -- he must seek psychological counseling.

    Some of the best moments in the script come when Will toys with a series of psychologists, even pretending to be hypnotized at one point to prove that he's way ahead of their game (he bursts into a chorus of "Afternoon Delight" while supposedly under the spell). In desperation, Will's new caretaker hooks him up with an old friend, Sean, a junior college psychology teacher played by Robin Williams. Sean hails from the same Boston neighborhood that Will does, and it's hoped he'll be able to get through to the kid, to convince him that he has an immense gift that could mean a way out of his dead-end life.

    This is where the movie starts to go wrong, but I don't want to make it seem like it falls apart completely. The relationship between Will and Sean is a little too conveniently written. Sean's continuous mourning of his dead wife puts the doctor and his patient in equally-tenuous psychological territory, and, if you've ever seen "Ordinary People," you've seen most of this relationship before. There are, however, enough fine moments spread throughout the film to serve as a buffer against some of the heavier-handed stuff.

    Scene from the film

    Damon and Affleck (who gives such a nice performance here I'm willing to forgive the clunk-and-clink he had to participate in in "Chasing Amy") are darn good screenwriters, and I'll tell you exactly why I think so. Broadly speaking, when you break it down, screenwriting consists of three important parts: character development, dialogue, and structure. Of these three, the one that can't really be taught to a mediocre writer is an ability to come up with sharp, believable dialogue, and this is where Affleck and Damon shine the brightest.

    A good example of this is a brief transaction early in the film in which Affleck buys a hamburger for one of his moocher buddies. When the kid says he only has 16 cents, Affleck holds on to the burger, telling him that he can pay a few cents a week and put the sandwich on layaway. After some angry yelling, Affleck eventually gives in (as you're sure he always does) and forks the hamburger over. This innocuous little exchange speaks volumes about these two guys and their past history, and is funny to boot. It's honest and graceful. However, the script's structure doesn't move with such charming ease.

    Minnie Driver plays a college student who falls in love with Will, and thank God for Minnie Driver. It appalls me that there are so many "major" actresses out there (you know who they are, and, if you don't, you're responsible for the quotes around the word "major") who pout and preen their way through huge, star-making roles while somebody as immensely talented as Driver is very close to unknown with the general public. Her earthy charm (including a deep laugh that you could die for) shines brightly in "Good Will Hunting." It's just too bad that Affleck and Damon didn't realize the extent to which they had the answers to Will's problems right there in Driver's character.

    The emotional "breakthrough" that Williams ends up forcing Damon into could have just as easily, and certainly more emotionally, been established in tandem with Driver's character. I make it a rule to critique only what I see on the screen, rather than writing what I would've liked to have seen, but this really is a situation where a sometimes powerful, nicely made film could have been a lot more than that if there had been a little more streamlining in the storytelling. In movies, as in life, it's sometimes a good idea to leave the psychologist out of it and just chase the smart, beautiful woman. And that's the conclusion Williams' character pretty much comes to anyway.

    "Good Will Hunting" has a fist fight, a brief sex scene, and a great deal of barroom profanity. It's a warm, tender film, though, and most teen-agers should love it. Rated R. 125 minutes.

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