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Nashville Scene Pet Project

By Jim Ridley and Donna Bowman

DECEMBER 22, 1997:  Whatever else you can say about Good Will Hunting, it's definitely the nicest, safest movie ever dedicated to the twin memories of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. In this likable but thoroughly conventional drama, directed by Gus Van Sant from a script by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Damon plays Will Hunting, a tough South Boston kid who works as a janitor at MIT. Will's life away from work is a blur of bars and brawls, spent mostly with his construction-worker chum Chuckie (Affleck) and his pals from the neighborhood.

Like Will, they resent the professors and wealthy students who brush past them on the streets. But they cherish a secret the blue bloods don't know: Will is a mathematical genius, an unschooled prodigy with the natural gifts of an Einstein. When three people discover the magnitude of his ability--an egotistical math professor (Stellan SkarsgŒrd), a loving student (Minnie Driver), and a grieving therapist (Robin Williams)--Will has to choose whether to accept the burden of greatness or retreat to the sheltered, unthreatening world of his buddies.

Brilliance is a tough subject for any movie: It's not easy to convey, and harder still to make sympathetic or understandable to the vast majority of us who aren't brilliant. All too often in movies, from The Absent-Minded Professor through Shine, genius is merely equated with harmless eccentricity. So Will's mean streak in the early scenes is a pleasant surprise. As generous as his gifts are, Will isn't above using them sadistically: He zeroes in on people and glibly dispatches them, like a gunslinger--or like the rich phonies he delights in skewering in bars. At first Will's quick temper seems bound to his quick wit, and we're fascinated to see how deeply the two connect.

Not very, as it turns out. Good Will Hunting never suggests for a moment that Will's anger has anything to do with being smarter than the ordinary folk around him; that would ruin the salt-of-the-earth cool that Damon and Affleck work so hard to provide him. He's no egghead--why, he drinks beer and gets laid and kicks ass! Although the movie sets up Will's class resentment as a character failing--he's rotten to his wealthy girlfriend and disdainful of professors--there's never an indication that the filmmakers don't share it, or won't exploit it for all it's worth. (Apparently, Will only gets impatient with rich people.) At the same time, Good Will Hunting turns into yet another story about teaching humility to a cocky kid, as if brilliant people aren't complete until they're made nice. We might as well be watching Tom Cruise learn the value of teamwork by saving the Iceman.

As he demonstrated by pumping some feeling and cinematic savvy into Buck Henry's coarse, obvious screenplay for To Die For, Gus Van Sant is the best friend a weak script ever had: He's a wizard at honing in on the nuances of performance and location that can bring freshness to trite situations. The icky platitudes the therapist exchanges with Will would be insufferable if not for Van Sant's rapt, hype-free concentration on the rapport between Robin Williams (who's remarkably good) and Matt Damon (who's impressively intense but sometimes sounds as if he's reciting speeches instead of thinking on his feet). And while Good Will Hunting is at heart a boy's movie--Minnie Driver's character is executive producer Kevin Smith's idea of a dream woman, a girl who likes to say "blowjob" and drink beer with the fellas--there's no denying Van Sant's charming evocation of brotherly camaraderie, the tang of the wise-guy dialogue, or the wonderful ease Damon and Affleck show in their scenes together.

But even Van Sant succumbs to visual clichs, depicting Will's isolation with a ride in an empty elevated-train car. After the astounding early promise of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, and the hipper-than-thou calamity of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Gus Van Sant is turning into an expert mainstream director who perfectly serves the needs of a script. That's great; I just wish he'd serve better scripts. It's too early in his career for him to show this much affinity for a story about a genius in danger of squandering his talents.--Jim Ridley

Brooks bothers

Director James L. Brooks has his finger in so many pies, he doesn't actually need to direct. He currently executive-produces The Simpsons for Fox TV, and previous productions such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi still generate "Nick at Nite" royalties. But Brooks appears to crave the challenge of crafting the perfect movie comedy--one with emotion bubbling through the laughter, a film where we fall in love with the characters in two hours flat.

Sad to say, he seems to be drifting further from this goal. Terms of Endearment offered brazen sentiment, and Broadcast News provided unforgettable comedy. I'll Do Anything hardly counts in his filmography, since its original conception as a musical was gutted after poor test screenings. Now comes As Good As It Gets, and the overwhelming impression is that Brooks, Tri-Star, or both have been spooked by the failure of the director's previous mutated monster. Right down to an inexplicable title change--the original was Old Friends--this new film reeks of worry, effort, and obsession with the response of critics and the public.

Not that there isn't plenty to enjoy in As Good As It Gets, and not that the audience won't like what it gets. Chief among the film's pleasures is Jack Nicholson, perfect as Melvin Udall, a prolific writer of pulp novels who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and equal-opportunity bigotry. Melvin's routines--avoiding sidewalk cracks, daily breakfast at the same restaurant--are constantly besieged by the unpredictable lives of his waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt), and his neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear). Carol, who cares for a son with debilitating allergies, barely puts up with Melvin's eccentricities, but Melvin sees her as the only woman who might learn to love him. When Simon, a gay painter, is beaten and robbed, Melvin agrees to help him out in various ways--taking care of his dog Verdell, driving him to see his parents in Baltimore--partly to impress Carol with simple decency.

The fun of As Good As It Gets comes from watching Nicholson while Melvin's half-conceived schemes to win Carol's heart backfire. On their road trip, Carol is rapt with empathy while Simon recounts his stormy childhood. Melvin interjects with his own tragic coming-of-age story, but his acerbic misanthropy won't let him play the martyr; pretending to be sympathetic is simply beyond his gifts. When Carol repeatedly rejects him, his pessimism is confirmed and a darkly gleeful smile appears.

But this subtle and funny performance isn't integrated into a believable story. Helen Hunt is also fine as a witty but beleaguered single mother who wants desperately to believe in romance, yet these two characters never seem to inhabit the same world. So much time is invested in developing their idiosyncrasies that, when they do connect, it feels false--as if the movie has simply given up on the problem it has posed. More than anything, the movie suffers from excessive tinkering. Judging from the sketchy plot and abrupt transitions, As Good As It Gets has been cut to emphasize the sharpest dialogue and to make the structure more conventional. It's even possible that most of Cuba Gooding Jr.'s performance as Simon's art dealer was axed, leaving a shell of a role that even Gooding can't enliven.

The fatal flaw rests with the third main character, Simon, unconvincingly minced by Kinnear. There's absolutely nothing to him--and this is the role that could have sparked something between the principals, the way Rupert Everett did for My Best Friend's Wedding. As it lies, the movie's central romance is like a couple of lines that suggest a shape but never quite meet. As Good As It Gets has all the elements of a classic comedy, but it's afraid to put them to proper use. The funny dialogue and fine actors can't quite balance the filmmakers' fatal caution.--Donna Bowman

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