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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Good Will Hunting (1997)



Reviews and Comments

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's major accomplishment with Good Will Hunting isn't their terrific performances in it but rather their startlingly insightful screenplay. This is one of those rare movies that stars characters rather than caricatures. Damon plays a maladjusted genius -- he can solve complex combinatorial problems that stump the best minds in the field in minutes, but he's a kid on the streets, getting into fights, into jail, and engages in antagonistic games of oneupmanship with the people he meets. Predictably, this story is about his learning to trust other people and find his place in life, but unlike so many simple-minded films that tackle this formula, Good Will Hunting offers genuine insight into Damon's Will Hunting character and, in a broader sense, human nature. There are a lot of Will Huntings out there, genuises or not, and precious few Sean McGuires to reach them. Sean McGuire is played by Robin Williams. It's a meaty role and one of his best dramatic performances to date. (It's refreshing to see Williams in something other than his improvised lunacy-let-loose schtick. He's a versatile actor with a tendency to limit himself and needs a good director to expose his full range. Here, he's got Gus Van Sant to do just that.) The chemistry and interplay between Damon and Williams is engrossing and engaging. The walls they break through in their scenes together are fascinating, and the dialogue, skillful pacing, and fine acting lend them resonance and power. In particular, look for Williams' monologue on a riverside bench.

A refreshing surprise is just how much humor there is. While a dramatic film at its heart, Good Will Hunting is often quite funny. It's more like life than a humorless drama, I decided after seeing the film. Even in the worst of times, there's usually some sort of humor to be found -- maybe it's cheap, maybe it's morbid, maybe not, but usually it's there, even if we don't always see it -- or feel like laughing. Good Will Hunting finds humor in all the right places, at all the right times. Literary license is taken appropriately to make these moments ones of good humor. Again, I refer back to the stunning writing and acting. Damon and Affleck both wrote and perform these scenes to a tee, pulling off the creation and execution of simultaneous comedy and drama. Not an easy task.

For viewers uncomfortable with this sort of thing, note that Good Will Hunting contains an extreme amount of profanity and vulgarity. I would have preferred the film to have lightened up on these aspects and note a few places where they could have done so without hurting the film -- yet at the same time, the language and behavior does suit the characters and setting, and I don't fault it for portraying reality.