'Good Will Hunting': THR's 1997 Review
On Dec. 5, 1997, Miramax unveiled Good Will Hunting, a heartfelt drama starring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Robin Williams that went on to win two Oscars at the 70th Academy Awards, including for Williams' performance. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below:
Good Will Hunting equals good certain Oscaring.
Once again put Miramax smack dab in the midst of the best-picture race with this jarringly powerful film about a working-class kid with a genius IQ who can play stump-the-professors and win big but can't muster a passing score in the one category that counts — his personal life.
Likely to garner critics group honors, this Gus Van Sant-directed film will score not only with the intelligentsia on an abstract as well as emotional level, but its multiple heart-wrenching and heartfelt storylines will win over mainstream audiences in the manner of Mr. Holland's Opus.
The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, and that's especially true for young Will Hunting (Matt Damon) in this personal saga. Geographically, Will's trek is but a short distance from his working-class South Boston neighborhood to the patrician elitery of Cambridge and M.I.T. But emotionally, it's an infinite and unattainable distance for Will, despite the fact that he has a gift for finite math, a photographic memory and a capacity to assimilate knowledge and then to synthesize it to reach new dimensions of understanding.
Although Will can factor in math of the highest theoretical level, his own life, in mathematical terms, is governed by chaos theory. By day, he slogs away as a janitor at M.I.T.; by night, he prowls the bars with his Southie buddies, chugging beers and provoking fights.
In between these parallel and never-meeting courses, Will devises a proof of a highly complex mathematical theorem that M.I.T. poses as a challenge to the brightest graduate students. The head of the math department, Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) is daunted by the genius of Will's solution. Even his brainiest graduate students can barely fathom its pristine brilliance.
To say the least, the M.I.T. intellectual establishment is dumbfounded when it is discovered that a mere janitor solved the "unsolvable" problem. In the meanwhile, Will hasn't given it much thought, beering and brawling with his working-class buddies.
Indeed, it's his temper, rather than his intelligence, that dominates his life and, not surprisingly, Will is arrested for assault (not his first offense). He's an unbalanced equation emotionally and jail-time looms. But Will is offered an unusual deal by the court, courtesy of Professor Lambeau's intervention. He will be granted probation if he meets two conditions: (1) he studies math at M.I.T. with Professor Lambeau and, (2) attends therapy sessions. In the annals of jurisprudence, that's not exactly cruel (cruel would be studying government at Harvard), but it's certainly highly unusual.
On a purely linear, visceral level, Ben Affleck's and Matt Damon's brainy scenario balances out as an appealing, anti-establishment, underdog movie, but Good Will Hunting is no mere formulaic equation of the outsider triumphing over the establishment. The narrative calculus is far more complex and in Will's personal case, he simply cannot integrate his life beyond the arithmetical predictability of hanging with his buddies.
The most remarkable and rousing aspects of this ornately differentiated storyline are the varied, wisely textured subplots. Affleck and Damon have created, not calculated, a storyline that encompasses and embraces a rich multitude of personal demons through the supportive characters.
Although the story clearly rotates around Will, the narrative is packed with an array of touching subplots, all catalyzed by Will's vexing complexities. Most powerful among these is the torment of Will's therapist (Robin Williams), a fellow Southie who, in his own measured way, faces debilitations as staggering as Will's.
We feel also for a silver-spoon, pre-med student (Minnie Driver) who falls in love with Will but finds his is a closed universe. There's even an Amadeus motif, achingly played out by Professor Lambeau, who must face the immutable fact that he is, in movie terms, only a Salieri.
Add to this the boys back in the neighborhood who, beneath it all, are tormented by Will's inability to leave the roost. He is their vicarious idol and his hanging with them is a conundrum — they enjoy it but they feel let down because he will not seek out what they can only dream.
The best thing about Good Will Hunting is not in its well-crafted, psychological symmetries but in the just-plain messiness of its humanity. It's rowdy, it's funny, it's heartbreaking — it rings of life.
Director Van Sant (To Die For, My Own Private Idaho) has distilled the personal stories to breath-gasping dimension and he has layered in the philosophical themes in correct perspective — as subsets to the human stories.
The acting is brilliant overall, with special praise to Matt Damon for his ragingly tender portrayal of the boy cursed with genius.
As the physician who must first heal himself before he can heal Will, Williams is brilliant. He plumbs levels of pain and love rarely seen onscreen. It's far and away the best supporting performance of the year. High grades also to Driver for her portrayal of Will's embattled girlfriend and to Affleck for his Southie characterization.
Technically, the film is well-realized, from costume designer Beatrix Pasztor's perceptive clothings to cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier's visualizations of the huge dichotomies in the world of troubled Will Hunting. — Duane Byrge, originally published Dec. 1, 1997.