Monday, September 1, 2014

From My Collection: Good Will Hunting Movie Review

Good Will Hunting was the first in a series of roles Robin Williams took that became increasingly dark, subversive, and at times questioning the very nature of our existence. It’s easy to see patterns in retrospect and ascribe meaning to them, but I remember it being clear at the time that Williams seemed intent on making a serious mark as a dramatic actor in a range of parts in (often) independent films. The years following Good Will Hunting saw him chase his suicidal wife into limbo as his character negotiated his own afterlife in What Dreams May Come. Later he was the villain in both One Hour Photo and Insomnia. But a lot of that seems to point right back to Gus Van Sant’s 1997 film penned by the wunderkinds Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Of course the Oscar Williams finally won likely helped earn him more interesting offers and afforded him greater freedom to take risks. But without Sean Maguire, the widowed psychiatrist who helps the title character find himself, he might have continued making more of Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire.

This was the movie that made Damon and Affleck, both of whom had been building their stardom and popularity. Their friendship and rising stars were used to great effect in the marketing of Good Will Hunting. It’s a great story even if it’s not entirely true as told: Two best friends from Boston write a screenplay together and eventually get it made, get cast in leading roles, win the Oscar, and become mega-stars. By most accounts, the final product of the story was heavily influenced and handled by other writers and executives. Their original idea had the genius Will Hunting involved in a thriller plot, at least part of which is alluded to in a monologue he gives about why he doesn’t want to work for the NSA. That idea was scrapped in favor of focusing on Will’s relationships with his girlfriend Skylar, his therapist, and also with himself.

Anyway, it’s not really the story or the plot that make the movie so memorable. Truth be told, it’s fairly formulaic and predictable. But Damon brought so much empathy to Will and transformed him from a working class thug with a special intellectual gift into a vulnerable kid deserving of affection. Williams brings down-to-earth warmth in the role of the therapist who understands Will and ultimately helps him. Their friendship is the core and soul of the film, and even though it’s corny and contrived and totally unbelievable from a clinical perspective, the “It’s not your fault” breakthrough scene was and is still deeply affecting.

The technical aspects of the film also help elevate it beyond standard movie melodrama. Danny Elfman’s score is effective and memorable in its eclecticism. Elfman is typically called on for dark fantasies where his unusual instrumentation and discordant harmonies seem to function best. But by reining himself in ever so slightly he produced a beautiful accompaniment that is augmented by the tunes of Elliot Smith. As director, Gus Van Sant also makes the movie his own. The details are dead on. There are subtleties that give Will and his friends Chuckie (Ben Affleck), Morgan (Casey Affleck), and Billy (Cole Hauser), and their neighborhood texture. It’s in the way they know the bouncer at the Harvard bar where Will meets Skylar (Minnie Driver) because their world of South Boston occasionally branches out into other parts of the city. It’s there in the way Van Sant slows down the action of a fight scene to illustrate the rawness of Will’s life.

As far as I recall, this was the first time I had seen Williams in a role that doesn’t rely in any way on his comedic talents or shtick. It’s the first time perhaps that he fully disappeared into a character. He is all restraint and melancholy which, in retrospect, might have been very difficult for him to delve into. But it’s still amazing to watch him go to those dark places, whether it’s a shot of him quietly contemplating alone in his apartment in the middle of the night or grabbing Will by the throat after he says the wrong thing about his dead wife.

However, any time I watch the film now, I’m always bothered by the subplot involving Stellan Skarsgard as Professor Gerald Lambeaux, the MIT math professor who saves Will from prison time. It’s not his character entirely that troubles me, but the idea that he’s so psychologically destroyed by Will’s presence, this young genius for whom the world’s most complex math proofs come so easily. Will makes Gerald look and feel like a child and I think that point is pressed a little too hard. So is the existence, at all, of Gerald’s assistant Tom, who seems to follow him around like a lost puppy and only utters words in defense of his mentor. It’s a ridiculous and pointless character who should have been cut entirely along with the cryptology subplot.

I try my best to ignore those scenes no matter how much they grate on my nerves because I still really admire this story. All the elements came together in a kind of magical way that doesn’t happen all that often. Filmmaking is such a precarious enterprise that the presence of one wrong actor, the wrong cinematographer, a few bad edits, or a superfluous scene can make or break the whole thing. Thankfully, Good Will Hunting remains so much greater than the sum of its parts, one of which is the beautifully sullen presence of the late Robin Williams.

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