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Good Will Hunting

Rated R, 126 min. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgard, Minnie Driver.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 26, 1997

Will Hunting (Damon) is a “Southie” -- a twentysomething kid from the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods of South Boston. By day he works construction with his best friend Chuckie (Affleck) and by night he works as a janitor, mopping the hallowed halls of M.I.T. When he's not doing that he's out drinking down at the local pub or engaging in the sort of street-tough shenanigans that gave Alex in A Clockwork Orange such a bad name. And when he's not doing all that, he's anonymously solving some of the toughest mathematical equations that M.I.T. professor Lambeau (Skarsgard) can pitch to his students. Will is a misplaced genius, “an Einstein,” the kind of mental gymnast who comes along maybe once in a generation, if that, and when he gets nailed by the cops and stands facing some hard time, Professor Lambeau tracks down this wunderkind and packs him off to his old psychologist pal Sean McGuire (Williams), himself an ex-Southie from those same mean streets. It's here that Will opens up about his battered childhood, his mental prowess, and his seeming lack of ambition, and also where a steady war of wills begins to simmer, Southie vs. Southie. Co-written by real-life pals Affleck and Damon, Good Will Hunting is the sort of coming-of-age story that all too often bogs down in cheap, sentimental claptrap and budding-wisdom brouhahas, but Van Sant and a very, very solid cast keep the film from breaking up, at least until the final reel or so. Will's romantic interest, the pre-med Skylar (Driver) at first seems to be such a stock deus ex machina that you grit your teeth, waiting for the other shoe to drop, but Van Sant never lets it happen; she's not Will Hunting's clever, witty salvation, at least not in the classic, screen sense. That comes from William's McGuire, a crotchety, angry, seething psych professor who's trapped in the painful aftermath caused by his wife's death from cancer and his refusal to rejoin the living. He's Will's mirror image, and he knows it. It's the key to both their salvations. I've been wondering recently just who the hell Matt Damon is and why he adorns the covers of so many magazines when he's done so little film work thus far, but I have to admit, he shines in the role of Will. Will is 30% cocky bravado, 30% violent thug, and 40% bewildered mastermind, and Damon plays up a storm as he ricochets off Williams (in one of his best “serious” turns yet) and pals around with Affleck with the sort of ease you feel they share in real life. Things stumble a bit in the third act as emotional speeches flow like cheap red wine and Good Will Hunting threatens to spill over the dams of pathos, but it's never so much that Van Sant loses sight of the film's original intentions. Part character study, part redemptive drama, and all cheesy heart, it's Boston-baked melodrama, a little too gooey at times, but still pretty delicious.
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