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Don't let the goofy name fool you -- "Good Will Hunting" dares to feature smart characters.

By Coury Turczyn

JANUARY 12, 1998:  People are stupid. Incredibly stupid. And we should like them for it because this single facet makes them interesting and successful and funny. This I have learned from countless Hollywood productions from the last few years: If you're stupid, you're cool. Just ask Jim Carrey or Tom Hanks or Beavis and Butthead. Never before has the cinema been so prepossessed by the antics of the ignorant, when the whole point of certain movies was that their characters were mental midgets. Sure, The Three Stooges of 50 years ago may have been dim-witted, but at least Moe knew what he was doing most of the time.

Perhaps in this age of leisure, when instant gratification is our primary goal, audiences don't want stories about thinkers—they remind too many people of what they've been avoiding. But that's what makes Good Will Hunting such a surprise—its whole point is that its main character is smart. He's a janitor who excels at theoretical mathematics, who woos the girl by spouting economic theories, and who makes his fortune by using his brain. This counters every precept of life as Hollywood knows it. How in the world did it ever get made?

That would probably be a tale as entertaining as Good Will Hunting itself—young actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck not only sold their first screenplay, but they got Miramax to produce it, Gus Van Sant to direct it, Robin Williams to play a pivotal role...and then starred in it themselves. Mind you, this all occurred before Damon's (The Rainmaker) and Affleck's (Chasing Amy) current fame. That would practically qualify as a genuine Hollywood miracle; and, thank heavens, the movie's pretty darn good, too.

Damon stars as Will Hunting, a South Boston roughneck who scrubs floors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and carouses with his fellow "townies" at skanky bars. But he also has a photographic memory, and he reads...a lot. One day, he notices a math problem on a MIT chalk board meant as a class puzzle. He solves it in minutes, leaving the answer unsigned. Intrigued, the class' professor, Dr. Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), finally tracks him down—in a courtroom. Hunting is about to be sent to jail for a street brawl, but Lambeau intervenes on the condition that Hunting see a therapist, Sean McGuire (Williams). Although Hunting may be a closet genius, he's also deeply troubled and sometimes violent—a product of a horrendous childhood. He is incapable of trust and leery of anyone who wants to help him. This puts him at fist's length from Lambeau, McGuire, his best friend (Affleck), and his potential girlfriend Skylar (Minnie Driver).

Will young Hunting learn to grow up in time to utilize his genius? While the outcome of this conflict is a tad predictable, getting there is nevertheless enjoyable. The cast is a pleasure to watch. Williams, freed from his usual responsibilities of manic wackiness, creates a lonely widower whose melancholy isn't splattered all over his sleeve. It makes you wonder why he doesn't do this sort of thing more often—playing adults as opposed to wisecracking, man-child Morks. Likewise, Damon, whose character is a wisecracking man-child, manages to show us Hunting's yearning for a new life even as he does everything he can to deny it. Meanwhile, Driver delivers another great performance as The Girlfriend—as career-limiting as this niche might be, she's just so darn good at it. Driver manages to be instantly likable, sweet, unpretentious, smart, and flirty—all at once. Who knew an English actress could accomplish such a feat?

As for director Van Sant—auteur behind Drugstore Cowboy and To Die For—this is as about as mainstream a film as he's ever made—and that's not a bad thing. When Van Sant indulges his "genius," we get disjointed fare like My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. But with the focused narrative drive of To Die For, Van Sant proved he could make a coherent, commercial film with touches of poetry. Good Will Hunting may be far less quirky and dark than To Die For, but it is also much more genuinely touching.

While the idiot savant/working-class genius/prodigy plotline isn't all that new of an idea, it's nonetheless refreshing to see portrayals of people who make their livings by actually thinking. Who knows—maybe this will inspire a whole new trend in Hollywood: movies about smart people. Then again, coming right up is Half-Bakeda, a sure-thing blockbuster about these two guys who are real ignoramuses! Hoo-ha!

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