January 9, 1998 in Seven

‘Good’ Role Matt Damon Conveys Complex Emotions In The Story Of A Boy Cursed With Genius

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Art is always celebrating the next new thing.

Nowhere is that more common than in Hollywood. In particular, movie studios are always on the lookout for another golden boy.

Last weekend it was Chris O’Donnell. Yesterday it was Ethan Hawke.

And now it’s Matt Damon.

Fresh off his performance as a junked-up helicopter crewman in “Courage Under Fire,” the virtually unknown Damon lit up the screen as the lead in Francis Ford Coppola’s fulfilling adaptation of John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker.”

Now we have Damon again headlining. And this time he’s doing so in a film that he co-wrote with another rising star, Ben Affleck of “Chasing Amy” fame.

That being the case, you might be tempted to approach “Good Will Hunting” with suspicion. Often it’s likely, if not probable, that a first script by a pair of twentysomething actors would betray all the warts inherent to rookie writers.

But hold your judgments. For while “Good Will Hunting” is not a perfect film, it’s a fine work nonetheless, one worthy of mention on more than one critic’s 1997 best-film list.

The story involves a young tough from South Boston named Will Hunting (Damon), who spends his days cleaning classrooms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - the hallowed institution better known by its initials. By night, he cruises the streets of Boston, drinking with his best friend Chuckie (Affleck) and their pals, picking up the occasional woman and getting into the occasional neighborhood rumble.

On the surface, Will is no different from any other working-class “Southie.” Underneath, however, he’s of another class entirely.

For when an eminent M.I.T. math professor (Stellan Skarsgard) posts a difficult problem for his class, Will is the one who solves it. And that exercise in ego changes his life forever.

But not at first, and not easily. Having provided the answer anonymously, he remains a mystery until the professor tracks him down. And then the mystery that is Will Hunting merely deepens, because he is steadfastly unwilling to step into a world that he could so easily own.

In fact, scarred from an abusive childhood and carrying a record for violence as long as a slide rule, Will is reluctant to do anything that draws unwanted attention to himself.

But then he is paired with a friendly therapist (Robin Williams) with problems of his own. About the same time, he meets a Harvard woman (Minnie Driver) who accepts him just as he is. And the challenge is laid before him: Face his fears and accept the success that could be his, or settle for the life that he already has and ultimately end up in prison.

The choice is not as easy as it sounds, and both director Gus Van Sant and co-screenwriters Damon and Affleck deserve credit for making sure that the issue remains in doubt until the very end.

Van Sant’s share of the credit is the harder to discern. The director of such brilliant, if flawed, contemporary studies as “Drugstore Cowboy,” “My Own Private Idaho” and “To Die For,” Van Sant has made a career of working with the best and brightest young talent. He has pulled career-making performances out of the likes of Matt Dillon, Keanu Reeves and Nicole Kidman, not to mention providing a forum for the meteoric brilliance of the late River Phoenix.

Perhaps Van Sant’s greatest accomplishment here, though, was to avoid anything that pulled away from Damon-Affleck’s basic story (no interior Shakespearean sequence, no awful casting decision a la Leaf Phoenix in “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”). Streamlining the movie merely opened things up for the talents of his performers.

Especially Damon. Not hunky in the Hawke-O’Donnell-Brad Pitt mode, Damon is as good an actor as all three put together. Having developed the script with his childhood friend Affleck (from a short story he wrote for a Harvard creative writing class), Damon nails his character with a natural authenticity that can’t be learned.

His Will is, under his cocksure exterior, one scared boy. The same guy who can best a bona-fide Harvard preppie in a bar-side battle of the wits is reluctant to apply the same sense of scrutiny to his vulnerable psyche.

Equally good is Driver, the actress who is as comfortable with an Irish or American accent as she is her native English. Fresh off her fun performance in “Grosse Point Blank,” Driver is convincing whether expressing laughter or tears.

As with all good performances, Damon and Driver don’t just act their characters, they become them.

In such company, Williams is understandably less impressive. So mannered that it’s difficult for him to be anything but the quick-witted jokester of talk-show fame, Williams here resorts to his doctorish “Awakenings” character. Yet it works, especially in his scenes with Damon.

When his character tells Will, repeatedly, that he is not to blame for how he feels, Damon is given the opportunity to show his full and impressive range of emotions.

That sequence, all by itself, is prime evidence that Damon is not so much the next new thing as he is what’s happening at this very moment.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story:

1. “Good Will Hunting” ***-1/2

Location: Newport Cinemas, Spokane Valley Mall, Showboat

Credits: Directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Matt Damon, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck

Running time: 2:05

Rating: R

2. Other views

Here’s what other critics say about “Good Will Hunting:”

Duane Byrge/The Hollywood Reporter: The acting is brilliant overall, with special praise to Matt Damon for his ragingly tender portrayal of the boy cursed with genius.

Hillel Italie/Associated Press: “Good Will Hunting” isn’t terrible. At times it’s pretty good, but you might shudder to think what the movie would be like with a mainstream director.

The acting is also uneven.

Karen Hershenson/Contra Costa Times: There is a reason Matt Damon dominates the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair. The young actor is quickly becoming the It Boy, a fresh face with deep reservoirs of talent.

His lead performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker” was impressive, and he cranks it up a notch in “Good Will Hunting.”

Elvis Mitchell/Fort Worth StarTelegram: In the hands of lesser talents, “Good Will Hunting” would be a hideous, sticky mess, heavy-handedly squeezing your heart until you crumple into a heap of embarrassed tears. Van Sant … is the perfect man for the material though I’ve no idea what attracted him to it.

Desson Howe/The Washington Post: Sometimes the film … asks us to nod our heads in reverence at the mysteries of higher intelligence. But there’s more to “Good Will Hunting” than “a movie with heart.” It’s also about a world in which official intelligence has been appropriated by an academic and professional elite that’s too dumb, or arrogant, to handle the job.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Good Will Hunting” ***-1/2 Location: Newport Cinemas, Spokane Valley Mall, Showboat Credits: Directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Matt Damon, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck Running time: 2:05 Rating: R

2. Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Good Will Hunting:” Duane Byrge/The Hollywood Reporter: The acting is brilliant overall, with special praise to Matt Damon for his ragingly tender portrayal of the boy cursed with genius. Hillel Italie/Associated Press: “Good Will Hunting” isn’t terrible. At times it’s pretty good, but you might shudder to think what the movie would be like with a mainstream director. The acting is also uneven. Karen Hershenson/Contra Costa Times: There is a reason Matt Damon dominates the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair. The young actor is quickly becoming the It Boy, a fresh face with deep reservoirs of talent. His lead performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker” was impressive, and he cranks it up a notch in “Good Will Hunting.” Elvis Mitchell/Fort Worth StarTelegram: In the hands of lesser talents, “Good Will Hunting” would be a hideous, sticky mess, heavy-handedly squeezing your heart until you crumple into a heap of embarrassed tears. Van Sant … is the perfect man for the material though I’ve no idea what attracted him to it. Desson Howe/The Washington Post: Sometimes the film … asks us to nod our heads in reverence at the mysteries of higher intelligence. But there’s more to “Good Will Hunting” than “a movie with heart.” It’s also about a world in which official intelligence has been appropriated by an academic and professional elite that’s too dumb, or arrogant, to handle the job.


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