#ThrowbackThursday – Good Will Hunting

Original US release date: December 5, 1997
Production budget: $10,000,000
Worldwide gross: $225,933,435

(Note: Stop.  If you’re thinking about getting snippy because Harvey Weinstein produced this movie or because you’re mad at Ben Affleck or Matt Damon, stop.  Weinstein is a horrible man who did horrible things.  But Robin Williams was a great man and talent.  Minnie Driver and Stellan Skarsgård are also tremendous talents.  And Weinstein happened to be involved in producing some pretty important films.  I’m not going to stop watching or talking about them nor will I ignore the efforts of everyone else involved because of one man’s actions.  Harvey Weinstein will not make me forget Robin Williams.  And neither will you.  How do you like them apples?  Now, I proceed.)

I hadn’t seen Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting since its original theatrical run.  I’ve wanted to rewatch it for years, now, but just haven’t gotten to it until this column.  Nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and winning two (Best Original Screenplay for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and Best Supporting Actor for Robin Williams), the film received a lot of attention and was heralded as the arrival of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, though the movie was hardly the first appearance of either in the film industry.  In actuality, it was the eighth credited theatrical role for both of them.  The film was, however, the first writing credit either had received (Affleck has since had much more writing experience than Damon) and that’s really what turned people’s heads.

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The film follows Will Hunting (Damon), a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) who has a natural aptitude for intellectualism but has stalled in life due to his inability to find motivation or develop any sort of ambition.  When M.I.T. professor Gerald Lambeau (Skarsgård) discovers Hunting’s abilities, he takes Will under his wing, determined to set him on the right path.  When Lambeau to his old friend, psychiatrist Sean Maguire (Williams), for assistance, the pair of professionals struggle to find the necessary approach to get through to Will and help him reach his potential and cease living his life in fear of failure.

I enjoyed the film but not as much as I expected to.  I had a bit of a hard time investing in the story and the characters, and much of that is due to the fact that there is, in fact, very little story to invest in.  There is no narrative hook – no carrot-on-a-stick plot threads that dangle throughout the length of the film, waiting to be resolved.  There is no anecdotal suspense or emotional bait that serves to snare the viewer, elevating their interest in the proceedings as they wait for the thread to play out.

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That narrative hook isn’t absolutely necessary for a film, but it helps.  Without one, it’s substantially more difficult to craft a tale that is compelling from beginning to end.  As solid as the script by Affleck and Damon is, their inexperience at the time contributes to the screenplay’s inability to completely overcome this handicap.  Still, the strengths that the script and remainder of the film has to offer do succeed in largely righting the ship and shifting the balance primarily in the positive direction.

One strength present in Damon and Affleck’s work is dialogue that is natural and believable, yet also intelligent, meaningful, and memorable.  It had been twenty-one years since I had seen the movie, yet I still remembered the “apples” line I referenced in my parenthetical aside at the beginning of this column.  But dialogue only works if the cast can deliver it, and the primary cast members are a pleasure to watch.  Damon nabbed himself an Oscar nomination for his turn, and rightfully so.  So did Minnie Driver and, as Skylar, she convinces us that Will is probably a better man than we would otherwise believe.  Skarsgård shows true conviction and passion.  And of course Robin Williams settles comfortably into his role as mentor and delivers one of his best career performances.

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Ultimately, the film is a character study about one man.  It’s about a man who, like all of us, didn’t choose who he turned out to be.  His problem lies in the fact that he doesn’t love – or even particularly like – himself and therefore who he is and who he wants to be are two very different people.  Which one is more important?  Should one even outweigh the other?  Is there any way to truly reconcile the two?  These are the questions at the heart of Good Will Hunting.  The ways those questions are presented and then addressed, here, are why this movie has stood the test of time and retains the reputation it made for itself over two decades ago.  Are any of us truly and completely comfortable in our own skin?  How do we self-sabotage on a daily basis?  Those are easy questions with no easy answers, but Damon and Affleck had something to say about all of it and they did so with this film and the help of Gus Van Sant.

I want to be clear that, when I said I didn’t enjoy the film as much as I expected to, that is not synonymous with the idea that I didn’t enjoy the film, at all.  I do think that an added storyline element or two would have assisted with the pacing but, other than that, the film is a shining example of how this medium can shine a light on the human condition and offer us an opportunity to reflect and then improve upon ourselves.  It’s an important work that everyone should see at least once (and then again if it’s been so long that they forgot everything but one line about apples).  Perfection isn’t necessary for value.  That’s actually the point of the film, which I find highly apropos.  It’s a tenet we can all stand to be reminded of from time to time, as much for our own peace of mind as for any other reason.

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