Good Will Hunting (1997)

There are two kinds of feel good movies: the kind that manipulate you through various film techniques and the kind that win you over with good writing. Good Will Hunting writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck craft a well written story with interesting characters but make a feel good movie that is never great. When you get right down to it, how you feel about life, yourself and the universe at the end of a movie has absolutely nothing to do with the actual quality of the film.

However, following the life of Will Hunting (Matt Damon) allows the film to explore an array of emotions. Will works as a janitor at MIT and just happens to be a mathematical genius. Prof. Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) sees potential and decides to take Will under his wings. The only problem is that Will is more interested in spending his time drinking with his buddy Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck) and pursuing British international student Skylar (Minnie Driver).

Lambeau brings in old classmate Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) a therapist who aggress to talk with Will. Their relationship is the soul of the movie and allows us to understand more about Will Hunting. However, it’s not through the mumbo jumbo of psychiatric talk, but simply by having the two of them talk in a casual environment. The way their relationship develops and the gradual way they begin to open up to each other provides a plausible and believable core relationship for the film to center around.

However, the film takes it sweet time to get us up to this point. As much space as this film tries to cover with all these pursuits in Will’s life, it is simply too long. The front end in particular drags on. Yes, the film needs some of these early scenes to set up how Will lives his life among the working class and is constantly at odds with all the pseudo-intellectuals  around him but it is a bit slow at actually taking us anywhere in the story.

But this setup proves to be important because it provides for the central conflict of the film. Will is caught between being gifted with fantastic understanding and desiring to simply lead a normal life. The two are at odds with each other and are manifested in the two characters of Lambeau and Maguire. It’s not exactly the subtlest of contrasts, but it does provide for some interesting problems which plague Will throughout the course of the film.

However, I don’t know if I agree with the conclusion of the film. It seems to presuppose that a person can only choose one or the other, yet everyday life shows that almost every person has more than one life. Most adults are both parents and workers, having life’s that are both professional and private. Sure, both may not be perfect, but most are able to get by in both. What’s to stop Will from choosing the same path? By simply presenting him with these two extremes, the film forgets all the nuance that exists in-between.

And for all the film’s talk of excellence, there aren’t really any elements of the film that stand out as excellent. Everything is solid. You’ve got good performances from a broad cast that and the dialogue is smart and funny enough, but isn’t anything to be astounded by. The camerawork is average and the locations are pleasing enough but never visually fantastic and the story, as I’ve just pointed out, contains some clear oversights but is a lot stronger than most.

I just never found anything that impressed me about the film. It was a solid effort by some bright young men, but perhaps they were so young that they were too idealistic. Sure, there’s fantastic sentiment and some truth to what they are saying, but it never is quite as piercing or enlightening as perhaps it thinks it is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film, but I can’t see it as anything more than just a good film.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing