Good Will Hunting
directed by Gus Van Sant
(Miramax, 1997)

Will Hunting is a poor boy who knows all the answers but can't seem to get the questions right.

Sean Maguire is a teacher/counselor with a knack for knowing what people need to make their lives work. And he has the uncanny ability to lead them to it.

They're brought together by an unlikely string of circumstances, people and events that make Good Will Hunting one of 1997's most watchable films.

It begins when Hunting (Matt Damon) solves an equation left on a blackboard by MIT math whiz Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard). The problem is, Hunting isn't one of Lambeau's graduate students: he's the janitor. He's also a would-be punk with more chips on his shoulder than most people have pores and a rap sheet long enough to make him a rap singer. When he isn't reading Nietzsche -- or swallowing him whole -- he's out cruising with the Irish-American boys from the 'hood or working some menial job for room, board and beer money.

Still, Lambeau sees a great future for Hunting, if only he can get him out of jail and into a good job using his gift for mathematics -- one Einstein would have envied. In desperation, Lambeau turns to his old college roommate, Maguire (Robin Williams), for help.

In many ways, the parameters of Good Will Hunting are set before the film begins. Viewers know Robin Williams can't fail, Matt Damon can't die and genius can't go untapped.

That means Good Will Hunting isn't so much a "what" film as a "how" film, not a "who-done-it?" but a "how-can-he-do-it?" That means it has to be well acted, tightly scripted, carefully plotted and delicately handled to have even the slightest chance of succeeding. Fortunately, it's all that and more.

Damon, who co-scripted the film, seethes with intensity as Hunting, the abandoned child who was abused by his foster families and now protects himself by playing at life instead of living. Williams is his old, solid, sometimes sappy self as the therapist who sees through Hunting's tough veneer but knows that only Hunting can bring himself out from under it.

For Hunting, the rewards are many: a good job at a think tank and a standing invitation to make love to Minnie Driver. But so are the dangers.

Director Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) keeps the pace quick and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier performs a nimble aerial ballet between South Boston and Cambridge; but ultimately, it's Damon and Williams who make the work whole: Damon by making us believe that a tough guy can execute a triumphant exit from behind his own shield and Williams by snatching the film from the edge of sentimentality half a dozen times with a quick bit of ironic wit.

Had it not been for James Cameron's entry, Good Will Hunting probably would have won enough Oscars to sink the Titanic. (It took two: supporting actor for Williams and original screenplay for Damon and Ben Affleck).

As it is, it stands as a reminder that a film doesn't have to go down with the ship to take first place in the human heart.

Titanic may have topped the box office, but Good Will Hunting makes much bigger waves.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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