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Memphis Flyer Make Me Laugh! Make Me Cry!

By Hadley Hury

JANUARY 12, 1998:  Good Will Hunting is a coming-of-age story about a 21-year-old, South Boston laborer who is a genius in the rough. The film also marks the fairly wondrous, mutual coming-of-age of director Gus Van Sant and co-writers and co-stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Van Sant has been doing interesting work on the independent margins for years (My Own Private Idaho, Drugstore Cowboy), but here he achieves a sophisticated, clear-eyed coherence, and a passionate cinematic heart for which his earlier films seem – like Will Hunting, the unpolished human gem – only the roughest of outlines. Affleck and Damon’s script, even when it resorts on one or two occasions to cliche, has given this director some very rich spiritual, emotional, and intellectual terrain to till, and what he brings to life is one of the most revelatory films of 1997.

Damon – who is concurrently starring in John Grisham’s The Rainmaker – inhabits the title role with a relentlessly watchable ferocity. Will is an extraordinary young man torn between his past and future. The film focuses on a period of several months in which researchers at M.I.T. discover Will’s mathematical genius and photographic memory, Will discovers love (with the charming Minnie Driver), Will is finally forced to confront (with the help of a psychologist played by Robin Williams) the demons of his past, and Will decides whether he will continue as a Whitmanesque working-class man who has the soul of a poet and the camaraderie of the blue-collar friends with whom he’s grown up, or let his gifts carry him to any one of a number of professional heights and a life seemingly without bounds.

That is the plot. But that insufficiently describes what Good Will Hunting is about.

One of its most startling aspects is that, for all the exceptional gambits and ambitions of the story, Good Will Hunting bristles with a sense of reality and romance with which most audiences will identify. There is an uplifting wholeness at work here that transcends the sometimes formulaic parts, bursting from the screen in a heady mixture of powerfully written scenes, arresting performances, and Van Sant’s galvanizing fluidity of style, emotional insight for the material, and grace in working with the actors.

Williams gives, arguably, the performance of his career as the therapist who wants Will to understand his past, keep his soul, and liberate himself to a new future. They finally meet on a common ground of vulnerability as Will brings the therapist’s own private pain into the light, and in the end help one another break through. (It’s time to note that, more than anyone making films today, Van Sant seems to understand and movingly convey male vulnerability. Good Will Hunting, like My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy before it, keenly portrays the particularities of male friendships, foibles, strengths, and weaknesses.)

Perhaps most exciting is the fact that Good Will Hunting was written by such young men and directed by someone who has, until now, been seen as a suspicious eccentric. This is a film in which just about everything goes right, comes together, and takes on a deeply felt and memorable life. Even its manipulations are honest, earned, and – though without moral presumptions – for a larger purpose. There’s wit; there’s operatic sentiment. You laugh; you cry. This reviewer, as I expect will be true of many moviegoers, found himself delighted to have been played, if like a violin, at least as a Stradivarius.

Deconstucting Harry is the best Woody Allen picture in years. One says “Woody Allen picture” because, like all the best auteurs, Allen has, of course, been making the same film since he began to put away his childish things – the inspired lunacy and surreal, daringly ironic, slapstick of Bananas and Take the Money and Run – and began at age 42, with 1977’s Annie Hall, and in just about every film since, to deal with the great hoax, the grandest of all illusions: growing up. This latest effort will be one of the ones that ensures his place in the archives of cinema and in the entertainment of generations of movie lovers to come. As a director, he is America’s answer to Fellini; as an onscreen persona he is a fretsome, navel-contemplating incarnation of Peter Pan as Intellectual Jewish Manhattanite.

With Deconstructing Harry, Allen persists in his chronic need to laugh rather than cry, to have us do so as well, and to beat the critics (of his work, and more recently, the conduct of his personal life) to the punch by pinning his fears and weaknesses on the big screen for all to deride. Albeit self-absorbed and insistent on projecting his bread-buttering neuroses, Allen is almost modest here: He makes shrewd, self-effacing fun of himself. A few film critics are rather snootily dismissing Deconstructing Harry as just another exercise in artistic self-justification, adolescent sexual obsessions, and pseudo-profound cliches about art and life. It very well may manifest all of those elements (and the last few minutes of the film do, indeed, come across as a weak, philosophical stab at moralizing), but these disdainful critics seem no longer capable of considering Allen’s films discretely and have, armed with the highly publicized pecaddilloes of his domestic affairs, now decided to view his work from that most dangerous perspective that film critics can be heir to, that of pop psychologist. Sad, that their insistence on biographically based commentary (constructed from issues about which they can never be certain) should preclude their seeing what we can know with certain delight: that Woody Allen has arrived – moderately morose, still whining, and with all his undisputed baggage continuingly accounted for – alongside Keaton and Chaplin, in the first ranks of American clowndom. Fortunately for most of us, we won’t feel we have succumbed to the slippery slope of moral relativism by enjoying Deconstructing Harry, one of Allen’s finest and funniest films.

Allen plays Harry Block – a writer with (yes, indeedy) writer’s block – who is self-absorbed, consumed with adolescent sexual obsessions and admittedly pseudo-profound questions about art and life. At worst, he callously uses the women in his life as fodder for his fiction’s misanthropy; at best, he is spiritually bankrupt. By film’s end, Harry may have grown only neglibly as a human being, but he has at least come up with the premise for a new book – a protagonist who is “a failure at life” but who participates in the give-and-take of life through his characters. Along the way, Allen artfully strings together some hilarious situational comedy.

Picking over the traces – of both his perpetual themes, visual and verbal humor, and, one may assume, his personal trials – he manages to succeed this time out in his will to one-upsmanship. The script is smart and funny; there’s an apotheosis of the familiar. Many sustained scenes have long pedigrees, obvious set-ups, shaggy-dog unfoldings, and shameless, vaudevillian, ta-dum! pay-offs. But far from being arid, the film percolates with fresh energy. The whole project seems tuned up several notches. (He even throws in an occasional dash of magic-realism – a trend we thought now mercifully resided on video-store shelves – and makes it work!) Allen’s sense of timing has rarely been so audacious and audiences may laugh as much at what’s being gotten away with as at what’s going on.

The usual casting formula – a celebrity repertory of medium- to cameo-sized roles – works more credibly here than on some previous occasions. Judy Davis gets a couple of juicy scenes – they rival her unforgettable “hedgehog” reverie in Allen’s Husbands and Wives – in which to deploy her full range of eccentric, naturalistic, stylistic, and just plain brilliant funniness. And in the role of Harry’s former wife, a psychotherapist, Kirstie Alley is encouraged to make a stunning comic silk purse of her customary sow’s ear of overacting. The scene in which she interrupts a session with a client to confront Harry for the sins of his past is deliciously, and perfectly, over the top. Bob Balaban, Robin Williams, Elisabeth Shue, and a host of others seem content with carrying a vignette – or even the comic equivalent of carrying a spear – as the picaresque silliness progresses.

Like Harry, Woody Allen may never create a film that moves us to the quick with the greatness of its spirit, but – for all his introspective angst and urban provincialism – he has articulated his own vocabulary of the human condition, and audiences for Deconstructing Harry may derive a deep satisfaction in watching one of America’s great humorists working away at making a good thing better.

In a scene in which our sympathies are completely with her, Harry’s former wife, the therapist, dismayed with Harry’s amorality, temporizing, and what she sees as a pathological need to fictionalize life, cries in exasperation, “For once, stop tap-dancing!”

From somewhere deep within us, we hear a sharp pang of human hunger, that subversive small voice of classic comedy, whispering – “No, don’t! Please don’t.”

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