Image source. Copyright Miramax Films, 1997.
Once upon a time, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were two young guns who really wanted an Oscar. I suspect that’s how we ended up with Good Will Hunting, an unbelievably fake “feel-good” story that discards reality in its desperate attempts to hit all the right Oscar buttons. This tale of a young math prodigy hindered by the specter of childhood trauma has all the right formulaic personalities and plot elements, straight up to the thick Bostonian accents that supposedly complete the “authentic” feel of the picture. I can’t tell what’s sadder: that Damon and Affleck thought they could get away with this, or that they actually did.
Let’s say you had to make the most cliché movie possible about a “troubled genius.” How would you go about it? One, the person would have to be someone who looks ordinary but in reality is completely brilliant, like an Albert Einstein living on the streets of the Bronx. Next, this person would have to be “discovered” in the most mundane of circumstances by someone able to appreciate his capabilities – think some Nobel Prize winner or world-famous professor. Third, this person would have so much potential to do good with his talents, but he’d refuse to use them because the pain of his past – maybe childhood abuse or a traumatic brush with death – would instinctively leave him unwilling to take risks. And then let’s add a couple of concerned outsiders to the equation, maybe a simpering girlfriend who would try her hardest to get him to use his abilities. Plus a mentor who would know exactly what growing up in the slums is like and could get to this guy like nobody else. Sound stereotypical enough? I just described the plot of Good Will Hunting in a nutshell. Sure, it plays with this plotline a little – the guy dumps the girl midway through the movie, and the mentor argues with the math professor over what’s best for the guy. But the essence is the same. A high-schooler struggling to write a good story for English class could do just as well as Damon and Affleck.
Even then, some parts of this carefully-manufactured setup don’t make sense. Like Will himself. Where did Will ever have the time or resources to be reading Fields Medal-level math books and history books only found in the recesses of a graduate school library? As he’s portrayed here, Will has spent most of his life being abused by his father, getting in trouble with the law, or hanging out with his friends. No matter what Damon and Affleck want us to think, Einstein and Mozart didn’t spring out of nowhere. Will’s supposedly commonplace origins are stretched out to too far an extreme to be even remotely plausible.
Beyond the trite, flawed story setup, the performances do as well as they can. Damon is fine but unsurprising as Will Hunting. Robin Williams does a solid job as Will’s therapist, but this should not have been the movie that brought him an Oscar. His considerable talents were best suited for comedic movies – see Mrs. Doubtfire or Good Morning, Vietnam – not heavy-handed dramas like this one. Minnie Driver is unremarkable as Will’s love interest, although, in her defense, the stilted, banal role doesn’t give her much room to be interesting in the first place. Aside from that, nothing here leaves us with much hope that the people behind the camera have any unique filmmaking talent. What deluded the members of the Academy into giving this two Oscars?
Good Will Hunting wants to be some deep, revelatory statement about talent, the importance of looking beyond socioeconomic status, and the urgency of confronting and settling unresolved internal struggles. Instead, it comes off as a hackneyed, unbelievable, and uninteresting indictment of Damon and Affleck’s mediocre writing abilities. There is a reason, guys, that you’re actors, not screenwriters. For your audience’s sake, stick to your actual job.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Starring: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver, Stellan Skarsgard
Running Time: 126 minutes
Produced by: Lawrence Bender
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Written by: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck