Good Will Hunting (1997)

Screenplay by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon
Directed by Gus Van Sant

Review by Tim

"Some of the lies are rather pretty, however, and my favorite concerns the little peasant lad who's digging a ditch behind a village schoolhouse . . . One day the schoolmaster absentmindedly falls into the ditch and discovers to his astonishment that the boy has covered the walls with masterful drawings, flawless mathematics, and learned quotations from the ancients . . . the schoolmaster grabs the boy by the ear and hauls him into the classroom, of course, and gives him every test he can think of, and word spreads far and wide that the latest Chinese genius has been discovered in a ditch in an insignificant village eight miles from nowhere."

from The Story of the Stone, by Barry Hughart (1988)

It is a familiar fairy tale, a true Cinderella story. In this case, the peasant lad is Will Hunting (Matt Damon), an orphaned foster-home graduate from south Boston. The village school is MIT, and the ditch is the hallway he is mopping. Mathematics professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), has challenged his students to prove a theorem, which he has posted on the hallway blackboard. Will solves the problem at home that evening, and posts it on the blackboard during his next shift. Lambeau is baffled when none of the students come forward to claim the prize, and posts another theorem. Will solves this one as well, but Lambeau catches him in the act of writing it on the board. The similarity to Hughart's descriptive paragraph, written nine years earlier, is almost exact.

So the stage is set, but Affleck and Damon throw in a few twists. As the film starts, Will is somewhat adrift within his life, letting the currents carry him along. He works days at his blue-collar jobs, and goes out drinking with his buddies at night. He is in and out of trouble with the law, but knows his way around the legal system (he reads case books to unwind) well enough to defend himself successfully; that is, until he ends up in jail for striking a police officer. Gerald Lambeau gets the judge to let him out of jail, on two conditions: Will has to work with him at MIT, and he has to take counseling.

Will's not too happy about the counseling, and works around it by messing with the minds of the analysts he is assigned to. None of them can handle the boy-genius' act, until Gerald Lambeau gets his old friend and schoolmate Sean McGuire (Robin Williams) to take the case. The initial going is pretty rocky, but Sean eventually breaks through Will's isolation.

Okay, so some parts of the story-line seem a little well used. There is an old aphorism in writing that there is no plot idea so good that a bad writer can't butcher it, nor a plot so trite and over-used that a good writer can't make it fresh. Affleck and Damon make this plot fresh. Or, to put it another way, listen to Dennis Miller's (108 KB WAV file) reaction to the film!

Along the way other conflicts are raised and resolved: between McGuire and Lambeau, between Will and his best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck), and between Will and his new girlfriend Skylar (Minnie Driver), a pre-med student. There are also some incredibly funny moments, such as what happens when Chuckie fills in for Will at a job interview for a high-tech corporation, and Will's little tirade while interviewing with the NSA1.

The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including best picture. Affleck and Damon won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, while Robin Williams won for Best Supporting Actor. All of the acting was superb.

1 Will Hunting's response to the question: "Why not work for the NSA?"

Why shouldn't I work for the NSA? That's a tough one. But I'll take a shot. Say I'm working at the NSA, and somebody puts a code on my desk, something no one else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I'm real happy with myself, 'cuz I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East, and once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels are hiding. Fifteen hundred people that I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are saying, "Oh, send in the marines to secure the area", 'cuz they don't give a shit. It won't be their kid over there, getting shot. Just like it wasn't them when their number got called, 'cuz they were pulling a tour in the National Guard. It'll be some kid from Southie over there taking shrapnel in the ass. He comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, 'cuz he'll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so that we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And of course the oil companies used the little skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them but it ain't helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. They're taking their sweet time bringing the oil back, of course, maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin' play slalom with the icebergs, it ain't too long till he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy's out of work. He can't afford to drive, so he's walking to the fuckin' job interviews, which sucks because the shrapnel in his ass is giving him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he's starving 'cuz every time he tries to get a bite to eat the only blue plate special they're serving is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I'm holding out for something better. I figure: fuck it, while I'm at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected President.