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'Good Will Hunting': Head and Heart

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 1997


Gus Van Sant
Matt Damon;
Robin Williams;
Stellan Skarsgard;
Ben Affleck;
Minnie Driver
Running Time:
2 hours, 6 minutes
Under 17 restricted
Supporting Actor; Original Screenplay

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When people tumble into love – in Hollywood movies, that is – intelligence is rarely the motivating force that brings them together. Being adorable or eccentric, or having an amazing head of hair – these are the usual qualities that make one flavor of the month hot for another.

But in the wonderfully original "Good Will Hunting," Matt Damon's appeal doesn't spring from good looks, sculpted locks or cover-boy ubiquitousness – although certainly those qualities should haul in the crowds. What counts is his thinking organ. When Will Hunting (Damon) meets Skylar (Minnie Driver), a highly intelligent Harvard student, they waltz on a mental plateau that Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt couldn't reach by cable car.

Will and Skylar's newfound relationship is part of Will's painful odyssey to get in touch with himself. An autodidact, he has an astounding ability to read books and absorb them, no matter what the subject. But he's an emotional mess. A product of scrappy South Boston, he's an orphaned delinquent who has bounced between foster homes, and who has been arrested for assault, battery and grand theft auto.

When Will effortlessly solves a complicated equation on a blackboard at MIT – where he works part time as a janitor – he attracts the attention of Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard).

Lambeau approaches Will, but the working-class youth, who's contemptuous of professors and all conventional forms of intellectualism, refuses to speak with him. He'd rather hang with his best friends (including Ben Affleck), get into fights and head nowhere fast. Fate steps in, however. Will is arrested for assault, again. At the resourceful Lambeau's suggestion, the judge offers Will his freedom if he promises to work with the professor and seek counseling.

Will gamely submits to Lambeau's relentless questions, but he's hostile to the quacks who tangle with his psyche. He devastates a hypnotist with sarcasm. He accuses a fussy shrink (played with self-satirical good humor by George Plimpton) of repressed homosexuality. But after claiming five such victims, Will meets his match in Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), a college professor and therapist with the wisdom – and the strategy'to outmaneuver Will's bravura show of force.

On one level, this scenario sounds like Hollywood hokum: He was a boy in trouble, a genius in blue-collar clothing. And Sean was the only one who could save his life. And sometimes the film, which Gus Van Sant directed from a script by Damon and Affleck, asks us to nod our heads in reverence at the mysteries of higher intelligence. But there's more to "Good Will Hunting" than "a movie with heart." It's also about a world in which official intelligence has been appropriated by an academic and professional elite that's too dumb, or arrogant, to handle the job.

Director Van Sant, who made the lyrical "Mala Noche," "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho," returns to his favorite hunting ground – the subworlds of grimy, poetic lost boys – and pulls us right in. And as natives of Cambridge, Mass., and friends since third grade, Affleck and Damon (a former Harvard student) lived this story. While they were struggling actors, they took years to write "Good Will Hunting," honing their main characters by acting out the roles and scenes.

The real joy of "Good Will Hunting" is in the tussle of wills between Damon, an impressive actor who makes Will's tormented problems very much his own, and Williams, arguably the world's most dynamic comedian. Like old masters, the characters assess each other's vulnerabilities on the game board before them; then they begin a ruthless, three-dimensional chess match.

"Let's do it," Will says with supreme irony as they mentally circle each other. "Let the healing begin!" But this isn't just about healing. This is a prize fight for the soul, plain and simple. I advise you to get ringside and watch.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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