Monday, February 2, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Good Will Hunting" (1997)

One of my best indications of how well a film truly impacted me is how much of it stays with me after many years. I only saw "Good Will Hunting" a single time when it came out 17 years ago. But my recall of its characters, specific passages of dialogue and visual cues has remained startlingly clear.

Perhaps that's because it became a pop culture touchstone, launching the careers of Matt Damon and Paul Affleck, solidifying those of Robin Williams and Gus Van Sant -- and inspiring a thousand conspiracy theories about the true authorship of its Oscar-winning script.

My favorite of these is a "Family Guy" riff in which a young Damon sits at a typewriting musing on the result of many months of hard work, and a lounging, pot-smoking Affleck cheekily insists he be given a writing credit, too. More insidious was the one that screenwriting legend William Goldman had heavily doctored the script, or even made it up out of whole cloth. (Goldman, along with everyone involved, has denied this, and I believe them.)

Watching it for the second time so many years later, I'm struck what a truly great rookie screenplay it is -- still a bit rough around the edges, and one of the few movies you can say could stand to be a little longer. But as a piece of cinematic intelligence, it proved the wunderkinds -- both still in their mid-20s when the film was made -- knew a lot about storytelling.

Perhaps my favorite part of the script is when one of the characters points out the central conceit of Will Hunting's story. Namely that, as a blue-collar math genius working as a janitor at MIT, anonymously solving complex theorems on chalkboards in the dead of night, Will was trying to be discovered by the eggheads and offered a route out of his life of poverty and abuse. Even though he spends the entire movie hurling insults at anyone who tries to get close to him, and pledges eternal allegiance with his two-fisted Southie (South Boston) roots.

The guy who has this insight is, of course, Robin Williams, playing Sean Maguire, a little-heralded psychologist who takes on the court-ordered therapy of Will after five higher-profile head shrinkers demure in the wake of the patient's invective. The heart of the movie is the gentle aura of trust and love that slowly grows between these two characters -- even more so than that between Will and Skylar (Minnie Driver), a British pre-med student about to graduate Harvard.

Sean is a fellow Southie, who was college roommates with Gerald Lambeau (Stellan SkarsgÄrd), the brilliant and renowned MIT math professor -- did he mention his Fields Medal? -- who "discovers" Will's genius. The former roomies share a natural affinity but also resent each other, as Gerry feels Sean allowed himself to be tied down by domestic concerns and a lack of ambition, resulting in his present (as he sees it) career mediocrity, teaching at tiny Bunker Hill Community College. Sean, naturally, is inclined to tell him to go eff himself.

The good doctor wears drab sweater-jackets, an indifferent and unflattering hairstyle, and seems barely connected to the life he's living. As we see in a brief classroom scene, he isn't even a passionate (or very good) teacher. We soon learn his beloved wife died two years earlier, and he's been afraid to "put some skin in the game" since then. He actually stopped treating patients years ago during his wife's long decline from cancer, but agrees to see Will as a favor to Gerry.

Their first session is less than auspicious. Will does a better job of psychoanalyzing Sean than vice-versa, perusing his shabby office furnishings, especially a glum painting Sean made, and predicting that he's one step away from cutting off his ear, Van Gogh-like. Sean doesn't necessarily disagree with the diagnosis, but takes affront when the lad edges up to insulting his wife, and clamps his hand around Will's throat, threatening memorably to "end" him. Talk about a doctor/patient conflict of interest.

It's an incredibly vulnerable performance by Williams, who deservedly won an Oscar for the role. I think almost any other actor, even every good ones, would have been tempted to try to render the character tougher, stronger, more proactive. Among its many other attributes, "Good Will Hunting" stands now as a monument to what a beautiful, beautiful man Robin Williams was.

As Chuckie, Will's unwavering best friend, Affleck did not get nominated for a supporting actor Oscar -- doubtless the studio didn't want him competing against Williams -- but he should have. It's one of those tough-guy roles in which the character's soft heart and grace only slightly leak out between the cracks of his hard-bitten veneer. He gets to deliver a great speech about waking up one day and being 50, and if he still sees Will busting his hump at construction or janitorial work, he'll murder him despite his fierce love.

Casey Affleck and Cole Hauser also have small but distinct roles as other members of Will and Chuckie's crew. Casey's character, Morgan, is the cutup who seemingly can't hold onto a job for more than two hours, or resist masturbating for the same span of time. Possibly these are connected.

I love how they always ride in the exact same spots in Chuckie's car, a rusting land yacht of indeterminate 1970s Detroit vintage. Their last moment in the film is great: going to pick up Will, Chuckie returns with a smile after Will has finally taken his advice to vamoose out of town. Without a word, Morgan gleefully cruises around from his back seat to claim Will's place in the shotgun position. The low man on this totem pole of declarative masculinity, Morgan is thrilled at a chance to move up, and Chuckie, magnanimous, accedes to the new configuration. Life will go on.

Like other films that deal with math geniuses, especially mathematics ones -- "A Beautiful Mind," "The Theory of Everything" -- "Good Will Hunting" wisely stays away from the specifics of the discipline. The equations on the boards are surely gibberish to almost everyone watching the film, so Van Sant focuses on the power these hieroglyphics have over the characters, rather than the nomenclature and what they really mean. Would the movie be helped by having a character droning an explanation of the basics of chaos math or high order differential equations? I think not.

Films tend to like to introduce characters who are proclaimed as geniuses, and then proceed to have them do very dumb things. "Good Will Hunting" never makes that mistake, careful to depict how Will is always intellectually a few steps ahead of everyone else, while vividly showing us how emotionally stunted he is. He's repeatedly referred to as "the boy," something helped by Damon's foppy, quintessentially 1990s haircut.

A few amateurish moments aside -- Bill Plimpton as a very Plimpton-esque therapist Will ferrets out as  unknowingly gay after two minutes; Chuckie posing as Will at a job interview so he can scam the suits out of $73 in cash as a "retainer" -- "Good Will Hunting" shines as one of the strongest original stories of the 1990s. Good on ya, boys.

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