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[whitespace] Good Will Hunting
George Kraychyk

Dead Mathematicians Society: Crinkly Robin Williams spreads his Smurf love to math prodigy Matt Damon in 'Good Will Hunting.'

'Good Will Hunting' serves up sentimentality in indie-film flannel

By Zack Stentz

THERE ARE, sadly, no scenes of duck shooting or deer stalking in Good Will Hunting, but there's more than enough goodwill to go around. It's all embodied in the hirsute person of Robin Williams, in crinkly-eyed Smurf mode as he plays the down-home psychotherapist who tries to help protagonist Will Hunting work through his self-destructiveness and embrace the world of differential calculus. Young Will is a mathematical genius, but he is also a proletarian brooder living in South Boston while working as a janitor at M.I.T., abandoned to foster care as a child and brimming with enough hurts to fill out an hour of Oprah. A kindly math professor (Stellan Skarsgard, feeling much better since his turn as a crippled oil-rig worker in Breaking the Waves) recognizes Will's genius, but the young man prefers brawling with his southie friends to realizing his potential as the next Stephen Hawking and pursuing a relationship with Harvard premed student Skyler (Minnie Driver). Bad Will Hunting. Go lie down.

If it all sounds like a writerly conceit, then it shouldn't surprise you that titular star Matt Damon co-wrote the script with co-star Ben Affleck (Will's best bud, Chuckie). But for large chunks of the film, the setup largely works, thanks to some nicely observed directing by Gus Van Sant and enjoyably profane dialogue. Affleck obviously learned a thing or two from writer-director Kevin Smith while starring in Chasing Amy. Like Smith's debut film, Clerks, Good Will Hunting is most enjoyable when it eases off on the narrative and lets the audience take in the grotty, no-future lives and foul-mouthed banter of its working-class characters. And any movie whose working-class hero salutes both Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent is clearly doing something right.

All this amounts to is about half of an enjoyable, emotionally truthful little film. But as soon as Williams enters to laugh, curse and heal Will's inner child, we're clearly in Dead Poets Society territory of earnest platitudes about reaching one's potential, cathartic confessions and tearful bear hugs between men. Will's lifetime of abandonment and his profound ambivalence about going corporate with his talents aside, the film achieves that ever-sought after psychological state of "closure" in an ending as predictably heartwarming as The Mighty Ducks.

Which is all fine, in its own way. And it's nice that Damon and Affleck have written young adult characters with more on their minds than lamenting that true love doesn't exist while drinking copious amounts of coffee (when Skyler suggests to Will that the two get coffee, he thoughtfully replies, "Or we could go to my place and eat a bunch of caramels"--which is as arbitrary in its own way as drinking coffee). But after the tasty monologues have been served and the cups taken away, it's disappointing to realize that what one has actually been served is essentially just treacly Hollywood sentiment dressed up in indie-film flannel.

Good Will Hunting (R; 129 min.), directed by Gus Van Sant, written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, photographed by Jean-Yves Escoffier and starring Matt Damon and Robin Williams.

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From the December 24-31, 1997 issue of Metro.

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