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Affleck and Damon's screenplay stars in Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting

Your basic coming-of-age story follows a very simple and basic plot. It never veers off that steady outline which other films have produced. However, this outline has proven successful for many films, so why change a good thing? Critics have some nasty thing against films which rehash the same storyline from another film. They love to bash these films (a good example is the recent Event Horizon which was excellent despite being drowned in negative reviews). However, as with the aforementioned horror film, when done well, I don't like to focus on what films it has copied from. Call it more of a homage to those previous films. I try never to dock a film for unoriginality, especially if it does it well.

Good Will Hunting has been done before, many times. However, this version is also one of the best coming of age stories I have seen in a long time. Good Will Hunting is not a film about the coming of age of a teenager or several teenagers, but more about the coming of age of one young man's realization of reality and society. Good Will Hunting is the story of Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a strong, seemingly stupid janitor working at MIT university. He hangs out with less than intelligent friends, but they make him feel like he belongs. He's been traumatized by a past he would like to forget. What was this past, and why has he turned into a reckless, fun-loving guy stuck in a dead-end job? These questions are all answered in the film, which was written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The screenplay is so strong and so smart that it never questions the audiences' intelligence. With strong characters and wonderful dialogue, Damon and Affleck have given us one of the year's best screenplays.

The film begins in a very relaxed approach. We see two characters walking from a house to a car. These two characters are Will Hunting and Chuckie (Damon and Affleck). Their relaxed style of everything they do makes us realize that this is a habit for them. Chuckie drives up, honks, walks up to the door, gives Will a drink, and they walk to the car. How long have they been doing this? Well, the film doesn't need, nor does it bother, to answer this. Will Hunting is closing in on turning 21, but his life is so hopeless that he feels content with working a blue-collar job and drinking beer while watching football with his friends. However, he doesn't realize the one thing that could break him free of this lifestyle. He has a gift--he's a genius, who can solve mathematical theorems in a few minutes which took professors years to figure out.

One of these professors is Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), a brilliant mathematician who teaches at MIT. He challenges his class to try and solve the theorem written on the blackboard in the hallway. Most people pass it by, unable to do it. Will is able, and does. When the professor wants to know who did it, nobody knows. However, after catching Will solving another theorem, Lambeau wants to team up with him to see what he is capable of. Unfortunately, Will only does this as a teaser, in order to play with the professors. After a bloody fight, Will ends up in jail and Lambeau offers him a deal in order for probation only. Will must meet with him and work through mathematical problems, but he also must meet with a therapist. Lambeau decides to ask his old college roommate, Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), to work with him pro bono.

McGuire accepts and his first session nearly breaks out in a fight. However, McGuire sees himself in the young, directionless kid, and he decides to keep the patient because he thinks that his experience could help Will. Good Will Hunting plays out in a conventional way, never taking too many chances, but never seeming dull or boring. What makes it so good is the little things--the attention to details by the screenplay and the actors. They all have their own little ways of doing things, and they all have dreams of success... even Will, who believes success is having fun and hanging out with your friends. Character studies are usually the best films, and Good Will has a wide variety of different characters. Yet all these characters are linked to each other, and those relationships determine the final outcome of the film. It's a predictable ending, but sometimes what you expect is what you want, and that makes viewers feel good after the film is over.

From the opening credits, I had a giddy smile that crept onto my face and wouldn't leave, even when sad events occurred. I guess I smiled at those scenes because they were so well done. The climax of the film is hidden in a way, buried beneath the characters. The climax involves a change in Will. It's obvious what he will do and what he will change into, but the way it plays out is almost perfect. The scene which most clearly represents the change in Will is when McGuire finally gets Will to admit that he was not at fault for his traumatic past. It's very touching and one that will have more men crying than women. In the midst of all this, a love interest is brought into play. Skylar (Minnie Driver) is an intelligent, but fun-loving college student who becomes interested in Will after he defends his friends. The two begin a slow but romantic friendship which, for Will, is only based on sex. As with every film of this type, this relationship also has many hardships (helped along by the veteran McGuire).

The cast is rather spectacular for this material, giving it the extra padding it needs. Matt Damon gives a very good performance as Will Hunting, but his character is the easiest to understand. Most audience members (particularly male) will be able to identify with him, and that detracts from his performance. What also detracts from it is Robin Williams who is spectacular. He more than likely will receive an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His character is riddled with deep, dark secrets, and his relationship with Lambeau is revealed very gradually. Williams has proven to be a more reliable dramatic actor (The Fisher King, Dead Poet's Society) than a comedic one. Ben Affleck gives a very good performance as Damon's friend, though his lifestyle is never quite explained. Stellan Skarsgard (from Breaking the Waves) gives another good performance as a depressed mathematician who finds Will, someone capable of teaching him, but would rather hang out with his friends. Minnie Driver gives another great performance, adding to her growing resume. She has a cute English accent, and she is more than capable of holding her own against Williams and Damon.

But what makes Good Will Hunting better than your average coming of age story is the screenplay. Perhaps the plot may not be original, but Damon and Affleck have written some wonderful scenes that are worth viewing by themselves. The mathematics are never forced on us (thankfully) and we don't have to watch numerous scenes of Will working them out. These scenes are mainly filler for the rest of the screenplay. The best thing Affleck and Damon do, however, is add realistic dialogue which only adds to the dynamic impact it has. The dialogue borders on brilliant, and at moments, crosses the line. The actors' give the lines the perfect tone and mood, resulting in some of the best dialogue since Tarantino.

Good Will Hunting is rated R for language (some sexually related) and violence. With Hunting, Director Gus Van Sant, after his flop Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, makes a strong follow-up to 1995's To Die For. He never makes too many radical decisions on filming the action. The only awkward moment occurs during a fight scene, which is filmed with strange camera angles and slow motion. However, this film belongs to the actors and its screenplay. The film takes its time on showing us Will's hesitancy to change, and then finally breaking down. His world is turned inside out, and Van Sant never tries to make us sympathize. He relies on the actors to make us care, and then lets the camera run as we watch. This is a very good film with very good performances.

***1/2 out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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