Critic's Notebook: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck Reprise 'Good Will Hunting' Roles for NYC Live Read

From left: Ben Affleck, Emily Blunt and Matt Damon

John Krasinski directed this one-time only event also featuring Emily Blunt and, in a special appearance, Harvey Weinstein.

Fans of the Live Read performances of classic screenplays know that the identities of the castmembers are usually tweeted out only a few days before the event. So it was curious that for Film Independent Live Read New York's presentation of Good Will Hunting, the only performer that director John Krasinski revealed in advance was his wife, Emily Blunt. Now we know why.

In a casting coup that elicited rapturous cheers from the sold-out crowd, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck reprised their roles from the 1997 film directed by Gus Van Sant, for which they won the Academy Award for best original screenplay. Joined by an ensemble including Hamilton's Daveed Diggs, Margo Martindale, director-actor Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), Keegan-Michael Key, Dave Shalansky and, in a special appearance, producer Harvey Weinstein, they delivered a rambunctious performance in which the cast and the audience seemed to be competing for who was having the best time.

Krasinski coyly teased out the news. He started off by saying that he was a diehard fan of the film and joking that Bostonians "all got tattoos of the poster of this movie on our backs." He then introduced the cast, pointing out that, since no man could possibly match Robin Williams' Oscar-winning turn as therapist Sean Maguire, he had picked a woman, Martindale.

"I may be a little bit biased … she was in a movie I directed, The Hollars," he said of the veteran actress, before adding, "Shameless plugs, shameless plugs." After announcing that the series' curator, Elvis Mitchell, would serve as narrator, Krasinski proudly told the crowd that he would be playing the lead role of Will himself.

That was when Damon strolled onto the stage. "I'm not really OK with that," the actor deadpanned.

The audience erupted in cheers to Krasinski's mock consternation.

"I just want to point out that, 30 seconds before, you were happy to see me," he admonished the crowd.  

Krasinski moved over to the chair bearing the character name Chuckie, but before he could sit down, Affleck appeared, eliciting another round of loud applause. Krasinki finally settled into the Narrator's chair, with Mitchell, as if he had lost a game of musical chairs, pretending to be chagrined as he walked offstage.

After informing the audience that the original shooting script was being used for the occasion — "You're gonna see scenes you've never seen before," he advised — Krasinski got the show going. As usual, it was a bare-bones presentation, with the actors seated in a row and scene-setting stills from the film projected on a screen behind them.

The reading brought to life the screenplay's canny writing, expertly blending ribald humor — especially in the exchanges between Will and his South Boston, working-class buddies — and touching sentiment. Damon and Affleck settled into their old roles of Will and Chuckie as if only days had gone by since they had first played them, and Damon seemed to particularly relish the chance to once again deliver Will's profanity-laden wisecracks. The audience often punctuated his rapid-fire line readings with applause, such as when he rattled off the names of Will's imaginary 12 brothers.

There were many amusing, wink-wink moments. In a scene between Damon and Blunt, Krasinski boomed out the stage direction, "They do not kiss!" with the vehemence of a jealous husband. Another stage direction — "Chuckie shows Will how to be a man" — prompted Affleck to sheepishly explain that he had put it into the script as a joke. When Damon recited Will's line about the Red Sox not having won a World Series since 1918, he added, in a triumphant tone, "At the time!"

And after a "post-coital" embrace in which Blunt's Skylar dreamily says, "It was really good," Krasinski turned to his spouse and asked, "Are you really going to take Jason Bourne over Jim from The Office?"

Faced with the daunting task of playing Wiliams' role, Martindale did a solid job, although her line readings sometimes felt tentative. Key used his vast sketch-comedy experience to bring life to a variety of supporting characters, including, most hilariously, an Indian hypnotist. And while Weinstein shouldn't give up his day job, his brief turn as the pompous shrink (played by George Plimpton in the film) was a hoot.

It could be argued that having lead performers revisit their old screen roles is less illuminating of a screenplay's qualities than if its characters were reinterpreted by fresh casting. But no one could complain about the wonderful nostalgic pleasures Damon and Affleck offered nearly 20 years after their original triumph.   

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