The new Gus Van Sant film Good Will Hunting is like an adolescent's fantasy of being tougher and smarter and more misunderstood than anybody else. It's also touchy-feely with a vengeance.
Is this the same director who made Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy? Those films had a fresh way of seeing. We may have been watching blasted, detached outcasts but he brought us up close to them, almost erotically close. In those films, and in portions of My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant managed to turn the blank cool of his hustlers and wayfarers into something lyric and impassioned.
Good Will Hunting, which stars Matt Damon and Robin Williams, is a commercial for the restorative power of love. It's shaggy and "tender": a hard sell masquerading as a soft sell. (Those are the worst kind.) And what's being sold are recycled goods. Instead of showing us new ways to feel, Van Sant plays up all the old, dull ways. He embraces mawkishness as if it were manna. At least Van Sant didn't write the script. That dubious distinction belongs to Damon and Ben Affleck, who has a supporting role.
Damon plays Will Hunting, a 21-year-old South Boston tough who works as a janitor at M.I.T. Will likes to joy ride and booze it up with his Southie buddies. He's perpetually pumped, with a hefty rap sheet -- assault, grand theft auto, the works. He's also -- and here's the rub -- a supergenius. Orphaned, Will spent his youth in and out of foster homes and never attended college. And yet his mind is so wizardly that he can reduce a smarty-pants Harvard student to jelly. Will's genius exists as a way to prevail over people who look down on him. When a famous M.I.T. math professor, Dr. Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), challenges his students to solve a real braincracker, Will takes an after-hours look at the classroom chalkboard and writes in the solution -- anonymously.
Lambeau tracks down Will in police custody. (He's in jail because he pulverized a snooty guy he recognized from kindergarten.) In awe of this Einstein in the rough, Lambeau agrees to act as Will's mentor if the police will drop the assault rap. As part of the deal, he must also arrange psychological counseling for Will. After a series of comically bad matches, the boy is placed with Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), a community college therapist and old classmate of Lambeau who, like Will, has a South Boston Irish pedigree.
This is where the film makes a beeline for Hokumsville. To begin with, Sean and Lambeau are not just friends but uneasy rivals: While Lambeau went after academic hosannas, Sean disdained glory and ambition and lived a blissful wedded life -- until his wife's death two years ago. With his rumply jackets and hair sprouting everywhere, Sean is a fuzzball in mourning. He may be brilliant but he's burnt-out by loneliness. And just in case we don't register what a holy man he is, we discover for good measure that he was also a combat soldier in Vietnam and an abused child and is a Red Sox fanatic.
Sean is the perfect therapist for Will because both are hurting inside. At least that's what we're supposed to think. While Lambeau is exhorting Will to realize his stratospheric potential, Sean, once he breaks through the boy's barriers, counsels him to "do what's in your heart." Guess who wins?
Good Will Hunting -- even the title is irritatingly touchy-feely -- propounds itself as a film about a genius who needs to allow himself to be vulnerable. He's isolated by his outcast upbringing and, presumably, by his terrific intelligence. But the filmmakers aren't interested in what Will is really like. They set him up as a prodigy only to bring him down to normality. Their point is that matters of the heart trump matters of the mind. Will may be a brain, but it turns out he's as angry and confused as we dullards. The film seems designed to cajole audiences into embracing their averageness. It's saying: "Will is a genius, but he needs love just like the rest of us."
Most Hollywood movies about prodigies exist on this same dumbed-down plane -- the most recent offenders being Searching for Bobby Fischer and Jodie Foster's Little Man Tate. What you rarely get in these movies is any sense of the specialness that comes with genius. In popular culture it's impolite to elevate genius; it smacks of -- gasp! -- elitism. But why should we be asked to identify with geniuses only insofar as they resemble ourselves? Isn't this just narcissism passing itself off as humility?
In Good Will Hunting there are at least four people trying to connect with Will: Besides Lambeau and Sean, there's Will's best buddy Chuckie (Affleck), who wants Will to break free of South Boston and use his smarts to make a better life, and Skylar (Minnie Driver), a wealthy Harvard premed student he falls in love with and who, of course, loves him "for himself."
But the voice we are most meant to heed is Sean's. It's he who challenges Lambeau's dreams of glory for the boy by retaliating with "Maybe he doesn't want to do what you want." Lambeau is like Amadeus's Salieri in reverse: He is embittered and belittled by Will's genius but wants it to flourish. And Sean is like the psychiatrist in Equus in reverse: He doesn't envy the boy's gifts, he envies Will's capacity to blast through his defenses and feel like ordinary folk. Sean, of course, also reaps wisdom from Will: Like his patient, he learns to feel again.
Will's ongoing normalization is thick with psychobabble. At his big bawling breakthrough, Sean embraces him and says over and over, "It's not your fault." The guy whose face he pounded for that kindergarten slur might have a different opinion. The filmmakers go in for this kind of sentimental victimology because it relieves Will of any responsibility for his actions. He's just this abused, hurt kid.
But suppose Will's behavior and complications came about not only because he grew up working-class and abused but because of the nature of his genius? The filmmakers don't really explore that possibility, because to do so would make Will part of an elite. And yet surely the way a genius sees the world has great bearing on how he lives in it. The crux of Good Will Hunting ought not to be how normal genius can be but rather how provocatively different it can be.
Because Will's gifts are not explored except as a sidelight, we never even get the sense of elation he might feel at solving a monumental math problem -- or, more to the point, his frustration in not solving a problem. Everything comes so easily to him that we are never permitted to see his passion for the way his mind works. The filmmakers' notions of genius are rudimentary: Will is like some brainiac who grasps solutions painlessly and reels off reams of facts stored in his photographic memory. This is a dolt's idea of genius -- Will comes across as a human parlor trick.
Still, despite his showing off, Will is clearly clamping down on his "potential." He doesn't want to release his gifts to the world because, we are made to think, the world doesn't deserve them. Good Will Hunting offers up a society in which the uses of intelligence are all corrupt. Lambeau sends Will on an interview that turns out to be for a job in military decoding. This, of course, gives Will the opportunity to get all self-righteous about using his brains to kill innocent people in unjust wars. Saint Will. The film, of course, doesn't posit any ways in which Will's genius might be used for peacemaking -- we never see those job interviews.
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Will's sanctification also has its working-class-hero side. When, for example, he uses his brain to demolish a preppie snoot in a Cambridge bar, we're meant to recognize that for Will intellectual confrontation doubles as class war. But surely Damon, who was a Harvard undergraduate, must know that gifted South Boston students have attended the university on scholarship. If Will has closed himself out of the academy it's not the academy's fault -- despite what the film implies.
Damon -- as actor, not as co-screenwriter -- is the best thing about Good Will Hunting. His performance isn't particularly modulated, but he carries an impending sense of violence that keeps his scenes on edge. Will's first meeting with Sean, in which the patient humiliates his therapist by intuitively homing in on his weakness, is unsettling and multilayered in a way the rest of the film isn't. It suggests a cruelty underneath Will's showing off. And Driver brings some freshness to her rather unfresh role. Williams doesn't. He's so swaddled in good intentions that he might as well be playing a teddy bear. Williams must feel a personal connection to this movie: He has, after all, been "normalizing" his own genius in the movies for a long time now -- to his detriment and ours.
Good Will Hunting pretends to face up to the big questions. Here's one it avoids: What if the tradeoff for Will's anguish had been a great scientific discovery? Suppose his life had been a godawful psychosocial mess but out of it had come cold fusion or a cancer cure? This is not something the filmmakers confront. They're content to send Will on his merry way as a self-realized good guy. What matters to them is that he loves himself.
Good Will Hunting.
Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; directed by Gus Van Sant; with Damon, Affleck, Robin Williams, Stellan Skarsgard, and Minnie Driver.