Thursday, 23 October 2008

Good Will Hunting (1997)

As is our way, sometimes we see one movie - in this case, Mamma Mia! - and come out of it wanting to review another - today, Good Will Hunting. The connection between the two: the lovely Swedish actor, Stellan Skarsgård.

Nugget Mamma Mia! Review: Well, not even middle-aged romance (our favorite neglected genre) and references to classically Greek ideals like choruses and Bacchanalia can save us from the horror that is Pierce Brosnan singing. Also, as always, A.O. Scott is right: forced cheer and crappy directing.

Proper Good Will Hunting Review: Back in 1997, the proto-PPCC stuffed itself into a crowded cinema hall, forced to watch the new trendy indie flick from the extreme edge of the front row.

And back in 1997, we came out of that cinema hall with our head in the clouds and a spring in our step, thinking: "My God! That was God's gift to cinema!" and "Gosh, and that professor was a stud!"

We've since revised our opinion (BIG TIME) on the former but still maintain that the professor in question, played by Stellan Skarsgård, was one studly piece of Nordic studliness. But about the film itself: what we didn't realize at the time, being ignorant types, was that Good Will Hunting benefits immensely from its indie packaging. Take that away, and you have some pretty trite melodrama.

The PPCC was lazy and took a total of 2 (two) screencaps. Here is the first one, where Matt Damon plays the cocky genius, Will, who likes to belittle people and throw his emo-drama weight around.

Here is the object of Matt/Will's belittlement, his patron and the film villain, Prof. Also-Cocky, played with aplomb by our favorite Swedish actor, Stellan Skarsgård. Yay Stellan!

Welcome to Boston! Enter our hero, the young Will Hunting (Matt Damon). Already in the first scene, as the credits roll, we see Will scribbling complicated mathematical equations on his bathroom mirror. Yes, Will is one of those strange creatures that inhabit the celluloid universe: the Movie Genius. These types of people are effortlessly super-intelligent. With barely a lift of their intellectual pinky, they can produce reams and reams of angelic music even while dying. These people, you see, are just conduits of the supreme energy force of Genius.

Anyway, if you buy all that, then you'll be amazed by Will's sheer, unadulterated super-intelligence. Will is a grown orphan living on the hardknock South Side of Boston, and his crew of layabout, blue-collar, Irish American friends include the loyal Chuckie (Ben Affleck), the strong and silent Billy (Cole Hauser), and the boyish Morgan (Casey Affleck). These guys ride around in their beat-up car, occasionally getting into fistfights with the Italian Americans. Meanwhile, Will works as a janitor at the ultra-prestigious MIT. When star professor, Prof. Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård, yay!), challenges his student to a difficult mathematical problem, Will finds the time to scribble the solution on the board outside the classroom. At first, the mystery genius remains elusive, but eventually Lambeau finds Will... characteristically, the younger man is on his way to jail.

In an effort to keep Will's genius free, Lambeau gets an agreement with the judge: Will is allowed to become Lambeau's new pet math project if Will also attends counselling. After going through a stream of ridiculous and ridiculed therapists (including the wonderful, late George Plimpton), Will finally settles on Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). Like Will, Sean Maguire is a working class "Southie" whose seen the hard side of life - he's a Vietnam veteran and professor at the local community college. He is also Lambeau's old roommate from MIT, and the friction between the two men - due both from old tensions and new arguments over Will's future - begins to heat up again. Meanwhile, insert random love interest in the form of Skylar (Minnie Driver), genius med student, quirky, British and an orphan herself.

Now, on paper, that all looks pretty great. Genius orphans! Rich dad, poor dad! A cameo by George Plimpton, wowzers! And indeed, considering that a very young Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the script, it's pretty impressive. (Though the original script apparently had a whole bizarre action subplot involving the FBI.) We'd describe Good Will Hunting as being something that, at its core, is quite compelling and touching, but is then covered by a lot of posturing and affected melodrama, which is then covered by a sugary indie Gus Van Sant-ified outer coating. In 1997, we consumed the sugary indie-ness - the Elliott Smith song, softly strummed in the background, the grainy shots of Boston at dawn - and we were hooked. Ten years later, the coating's gone, and we're left with the stale taste when you've finished your candy.

It's interesting that the hero of the film is a young man who is effortlessly intelligent, while everyone else around him - Lambeau, Skylar, Chuckie - must struggle and suffer for their achievements. In one touching scene, Lambeau and Will butt heads over Will's increasing rebellion. Lambeau loses patience and sighs, "I think you could show me some appreciation." Will quickly fires back, "Do you know how easy this is for me? Do you have any fucking idea how easy this is for me? This is a fucking joke." He then lights a math whizz solution on fire, causing Lambeau to leap forward in a most undignified manner, kneeling on the ground and blowing frantically at the flames. It's an odd, painful scene to watch - as Lambeau's intellectual inferiority is emphasized and pitied. Even though Lambeau is the stereotypical Ivy League celebrity professor - arrogant, entitled, out of touch with worldly realities - he has worked his entire life to be where he is, only to have an alien from the Planet Genius swoop in and undermine him. It's hard not to feel a bit sorry for him!

What is the film exactly trying to say about intelligence, entitlement? Representative Snobbish Intellectual Lambeau is, at best, pitied, at worst, mocked and demonized. The real hero, the man who raises Will up, is Sean the Good Ol' Boy Therapist. Indeed, the film comes down hard in favor of working class "good ol' boy" companionship over austere ivory tower snobbery. We can't help but wonder whether this film is suffering from a bit of American anti-intellectualism. Sean's earthy goodness melts Will's armor, even though it's Prof. Lambeau who takes all the practical steps to get Will out of poverty - providing him with job opportunities, saving him from jail, even putting him in contact with Sean's healing force in the first place. Sean, however, is shown to have given up a promising career in the intelligentsia to work, instead, with uninspired working class kids at the local community college. That - and the fact that he's a Vietnam vet - give him a heroic veneer of rough, honest good-heartedness. The film is definitely in favor of Sean.

Onto the acting. Well, despite the general melodrama, everyone pulls their role off with realistic aplomb. Obviously Stellan Skarsgård left quite an impression on us, mostly by refusing to allow Lambeau to become a charicature of evil (as much as the script wants him to be!). Robin Williams sometimes gets teased for making two kinds of films: the clean-shaven comedies and the bearded dramas. But we think he's amazingly effective at drama - his earthy compassion is lovely in this, and he's also excellent in Awakenings and Dead Poets Society. Sure, sometimes he goes overboard (What Dreams May Come, oh God, save us), but generally he gets it right. Yay, Robin! All the young folk - Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver - are very strong, though, it should also be said, they are in safe territory. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, both originally from Boston, basically play native stereotypes. Also, as can be seen in their later, individual works, Matt Damon is the stronger actor of the two.

Anyway, overall, it's definitely not a bad film, but it's certainly not as good as we originally thought it was.


Anarchivist said...

Mmm, Stellan. I first noticed him in "Deep Blue Sea," where he was so, so, so much better than the material. Good to see him getting a little love!

ajnabi said...

I love me some Stellan, and also think the American working class mythos can only be truly mined by those raised by parents far above it (in Matt and Ben's case, by an early childhood development prof and Harvard grad, respectively). By the way, speaking of Nordic studliness, how about Rutger Hauer (which Wikipedia helpfully tells me is pronounced /rʏtxər ulsən hʌuər/ !)? I mean, really he's Dutch, sure, but he *should* be Nordic. And also he was in Ladyhawke. I think the PPCC should review Ladyhawke, in fact.

Amrita said...

Awwwww, poor ol' Mamma Mia! I refuse to be ashamed of my love for it. Even Pierce's bullfrog croak was worth it, just to see Meryl go completely nuts. Although it was just WRONG to see Mr. Darcy play so sweet and confused.

As for GWH, I have a theory: it's a late teens/ early 20s movie. After that you get over it in a hurry and its still pleasant but no great shakes. Now prove me wrong by telling me you're actually 20 and you saw it when you were 10!

Ajnabi - Oh god! I had such a crush on Rutger Hauer! Mainly because I'd never seen him in anything past the mid-90s. And then I saw him with his present day face and um........ sigh.

Beth said...

Ugh I never liked GWH - I remember being so confused by all the fuss (even though I was 23 at the time). Amrita, you're so right about Darcy. That was jarring.

Sanket Vyas said...

This movie fell into the same boat that 'ET' and 'Top Gun' did for me - films that I really loved at the time of but were kind of time-pass on the second viewing. I still love the "I got her number, how do you like them apples?" scene to this day and feel Ben Affleck did some of his best work in this movie.

Stellan does rock though and I have been a fan of his ever since he kicked major booty as Captain Tupelov in 'Hunt for Red October'. 'Ronin' and 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' were other faves of mine with him in it.

Robin Williams does do his best work while bearded - never really noticed that! Incidentally, the marketing folks behind 'What Dreams May Come' desperately tried to get the movie name changed in vain when they found out test audiences kept pronouncing 'What' as 'Wet' after leaving the theatre :)