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The Boston Phoenix Happy Hunting

Gus Van Sant spreads good will -- for a change.

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  Good will hunting, Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. With Matt Damon, Minnie Driver, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgard, Casey Affleck, and Cole Hauser. A Miramax Films release.

Overshadowed by the new celebrity of local heroes Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, co-writers and stars of Good Will Hunting, is the revelation that director Gus Van Sant, who has given us such black comic assaults on the American way as Drugstore Cowboy and To Die For, has a warm and fuzzy side. This is a movie that fits in comfortably with the Yuletide season, but it's no Hallmark greeting card. Although celebrating the redemptive power of love, loyalty, sacrifice, and genius, it roots its feel-good message in performances, dialogue, and a locale as pungently authentic as the smell of corned beef and cabbage.

Hunting opens with a credit sequence of close-ups of mathematical formulas and printed words -- and indeed the film that follows combines by-the-numbers plotting (and over-involved subplotting) with inspired, brilliantly crafted language. The latter is spouted most often by young Will Hunting (Matt Damon, with this and The Rainmaker proving that his sudden stardom is not just hype), a young punk from South Boston who, when he's not hanging out with his buddy Chuckie (Ben Affleck -- street-worn, menacing, and endearing), is secretly writing out the solutions to humungous math problems at MIT, where he works as a janitor. This surprises and kindles the ambition of Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard -- what's the deal with him playing Americans despite the Danish accent?), who wants to hunt the mystery prodigy down and take him under his wing.

Unlike the heroes of such similar films as Phenomenon and Charly, Will's no sweetie. In keeping with the movie's penchant for Dickensian extremes, he's not just a genius but an abused orphan as well. He has a pop-psychological checklist of behavioral problems, and before Lambeau can find him, Will's been tossed in the slammer for assaulting an officer (the brutal street fight and Will's subsequent encounter with a burned-out acquaintance in jail are the most Van Santian moments in the film). Making a deal with the authorities, Lambeau springs Will on the condition that he meet with him for tutoring and see a therapist.

The latter proves a challenge -- in a deft montage, Will malevolently demolishes the façades of a series of hoity-toity shrinks until Lambeau settles on college classmate Sean McGuire (Robin Williams in his bearded, nurturing mode). Sean's a blue-collar Southie product himself with his own share of behavioral problems (both his wife and his career are dead -- call it "The Dead Spouses Society"), and when Will facetiously announces, "Let the healing begin!", you know the process will be two-way. Despite the formulaic situation, though, the pair's scenes together resound with humor and emotion. That's partly because Damon gets the logorrheic role normally reserved for Williams, delivering erudite free-associative rants at will. It also helps that Van Sant is willing to let men get close without the protection of sentimentality or macho bluster.

Whatever the reason for this relationship's chemistry, it's lacking in Will's courting of Skylar (Minnie Driver), a Harvard student who's also an orphan, and an heiress to boot. The love subplot, along with a tiresome rivalry between McGuire and Lambeau, is one of the film's major dragging points. Despite their off-screen romance, Driver and Damon here seem as forced and awkward as the exaggerated class differences that are their love's ostensible obstacles. Driver is much more comfortable when she's one of the boys, telling a vivid blowjob joke and impressing Chuckie and the rest of Will's townie entourage. Their relationship convinces most when it's collapsing -- in a high-pitched scene Will brutally tells her, "I don't love you," and it's a heartbreaking glimpse at the sado-masochism of true love.

It's also a glimpse at what Will's real problem is. Forget the fears of abandonment and mistrust of intimacy, it's will itself. He shatters the loving and the good with his inaccessible genius simply because he can. This Nietzschean temptation of the great man and his unassailable loneliness gets glossed over by the director, much as he presents a grittily detailed Southie somehow devoid of racism, homophobia, or genuine desperation. Uncharacteristically for Van Sant, this film wants to believe that even in the heights and the depths of human experience, some redemptive decency can be found. It may be a spurious happy Hunting ground Van Sant is offering, but with the help of Damon and Affleck, he makes good.


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