Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a natural genius. For a movie character, that’s usually a death sentence. It’s a trait associated with what my brother calls “too good for this world” movies, like Phenomenon or Powder.
Forgive me for spoiling the ending, but Will doesn’t die.
- Matt Damon: Damon lets his Bourne Identity come out
- The Rainmaker
- Titan A.E.
- The Talented Mr. Ripley
- Saving Private Ryan
- The Legend of Bagger Vance
- Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back
- Ocean's Eleven
- The Bourne Identity
- Project Greenlight/Stolen Summer
- Stuck on You
- The Bourne Supremacy
- Ocean's Twelve
- The Brothers Grimm
- The Brothers Grimm
This is no formula movie. In fact, it’s quite fresh and original. It’s a character study more than anything, and that’s not surprising, considering it was written by two actors: Damon and co-star Ben Affleck.
Will works whatever kind of job he can get. First he’s a janitor, then he works construction. Off-screen he speed reads books on any academic subject that interests him. On-screen he hangs out with his friends, picking fights in robust, romanticized-Hemingway fashion.
Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård from Breaking the Waves), a math professor, learns that the janitor in his building (Will) is a genius with a special talent for advanced mathematics. Having confirmed Will is not a fluke or a savant, he does what he can to get him into the education system. His offer is firmly rejected.
Finally, Will lands in jail for one of his fights. Lambeau can get him probation instead of prison time as long as Will agrees to therapy sessions and to discussing mathematics with him. Will (barely) decides to go for the therapy over prison.
Lambeau treats Will like a son. He’s proud of, and amazed by, Will’s accomplishments in mathematics. He encourages Will and tries to give him structure, knowing that, with a little discipline, he could be bigger than Einstein. Will isn’t really interested in academia. He knows he would be the best in his field, and therefore spend all of his time in an office, explaining math to people like Lambeau. He would rather work construction, which breaks Lambeau’s heart.
Meanwhile, Will attends his mandated therapy sessions. It’s not long before he shreds all the therapists on Lambeau’s “A” list. Will has read enough psychology to know the tricks of the trade, and how to keep them from affecting him. Shrink after shrink refuses to return after Will’s mockery.
Lambeau’s last hope is his old college roommate, now a psychology teacher at a small-time community college. Knowing that Will is going to try to shred him too, Sean (Robin Williams) agrees to take him on as a favor to Lambeau and for the chance to meet this next Einstein.
True to form, Will finds Sean’s emotional weakness and attacks. But unlike the other shrinks, Sean knows what he is in for and continues the sessions. Like a foster mother with a fussy child, Sean knows that the attacks are defensive and is able to take them in stride. Like the foster mother, Sean knows that time and quiet patience is the only approach.
Robin Williams is excellent in this role. He’s not an actor with a great range, but in the right roles he has great depth. In this movie, as in Awakenings, there comes a point when the quiet, shy man accomplishes something of great personal importance, and a smile of pure joy spreads up to his eyes. Williams is the only actor I can name who can make an audience cry just by smiling.
I have compared Will to a foster child and that’s not entirely fair. Emotionally, he has a lot to learn, but he is not a child. He has thought about his life and made rational decisions about what he wants. Sean, his girlfriend, his pals, and Lambeau all help him grow, but he didn’t start out asking for, or particularly needing, help. His exceptional gift singled him out, and those who love him kept pushing him in the right direction.
If I had to say anything bad about Good Will Hunting is that it walks the line between drama and melodrama. It’s too sentimental and uplifting for a straight drama, but the emotions are too subtle for melodrama. It is emotionally engaging, but it’s not quite larger than life. This isn’t a problem per se, but at times I didn’t know quite how to take it. But this is a relatively small complaint about a very good movie.
A good movie allows its characters to learn and grow. It doesn’t just happen; it takes a good script, good acting, and good direction. Good Will Hunting has all three. If you are at all inclined to see it, by all means, go.