Thursday, 31 May 2012

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Dir. Gus Van Sant
Starring: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver

In my review of The Departed I described Matt Damon as “always-watchable”. That’s a relief because he is in 90% of the scenes in Good Will Hunting and delivers an outstanding performance as the 20-year old genius from the blue-collar South Boston projects 

We open with Will Hunting (Damon) working a menial janitor’s job. He hangs around with his three best mates, dividing his time between “batting cages and bars”. An orphan and past victim of physical abuse, he has a hair-trigger temper and has a lengthy rap sheet. But he has one defining characteristic: he is an absolute prodigy. He has a photographic memory and can recall huge chunks of text or arguments – and can synthesize them in such a way that he can draw his own conclusions on the works. After he is spotted solving a mathematical problem on a corridor chalkboard (he works as a janitor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology), he is taken under the wing of Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd) who attempts to foster his abilities at mathematics. He is also forced to attend a therapist. After refusing to co-operate with those initially provided, Lambeau eventually takes him to his old college room-mate, Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), who teaches at a community college. Sean comes from the same background as Will and pushes back. Eventually a break-through is made. Will is then presented with the problem of what he wants to do with his life. Does he stay in South Boston with his friends and working at “honourable” labouring jobs, or does he embrace the regard from MIT professors, attend the interviews Lambeau has set up for him, and build a career utilising his gifts, or does he follow Skylar (Minnie Driver), the British Harvard student he falls for, as she moves to California? 

It is, like Ordinary People, one of those movies that use therapists as a device to get characters to open up. However, like Ordinary People, it handles it well. It is a two way process where Will and Sean both learn from each other. Sean is not some God-like genius; he is a flawed individual who has gone through just as much shit as Will in his life, and is at peace with it. And he is also willing to argue back when Will tries to put him down: “I thought about what you said to me the other day. About my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me. I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep and haven’t thought about you since. You know what occurred to me…? You’re just a kid. You don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.” He pushes Will to open up and allow people into his life. His theory is that Will has been hurt so many times he pre-emptively destroys relationships to stop himself getting hurt emotionally. This is why Will refuses to open up to Sean at first, why he belittles the work he is doing with Lambeau, why he runs away from Skylar. Will’s perfect state of grace is for things to remain the same as they always have: him having a laugh and a drink with Chuckie, Morgan and Billy down in his home neighbourhood. These are the people he can trust implicitly, as Sean recognises (“Chuckie’s family; he would lie down in fucking traffic for you.” 

Everyone has their idea of what they want for Will. Best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck) wants him to escape Southie: “Tomorrow I’ll wake up and I’ll be 50 and I’ll still be doin’ this shit. And that’s alright. That’s fine. I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket. And you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in, and that’s bullshit. ’Cause I’d do fuckin’ anything to have what you got. So would any of these fuckin’ guys. It’d be an insult to us if you’re still here in twenty years’ time. Hangin’ around here is a fuckin’ waste of your time.” Lambeau wants Will to realise his genius even though it is killing him to realise that what he works so hard for comes intuitively to this twenty-year-old (there are shades of Amadeus here with Lambeau the Salieri to Will’s Mozart): “Most days I wish I’d never met you ‘cause then I could sleep at night. I didn’t have to walk around with the knowledge that there was someone like you out there. I didn’t have to watch you throw it all away.” Skylar wants Will to take a chance on their relationship and come with her to San Francisco. For the first time in his life he has expectations placed upon him and he doesn’t like it. He can synthesize other people’s arguments in books and come out with ideas of his own, but he finds it very hard to harmonise all these expectations. 

The script is surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because it was co-written by Damon and Affleck. In many ways it is a shame that they didn’t stick to writing. Affleck got too big, too fast – Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Jennifer Lopez. He crashed. But the pair of them are good value for their screen-writing Oscar. And Affleck taking a smaller role, leaving Damon to get all the headlines is very unselfish. It reminded me that they started off in Kevin Smith independent movies and were recognised as a talent. For direction they brought in Gus Van Sant – thankfully he didn’t bring in the clever-clever ideas and Shakespeare references of My Own Private Idaho but let their script speak for itself. Together the joshing of Damon, Affleck and their two friends (Cole Hauser and Casey Affleck) is believable. Yet again Robin Williams does a good serious performance (though he did improvise some of his character’s funniest lines – such as the one about his wife farting in bed). He is not creepy as he was in Insomnia, but he is so much more enjoyable to watch as a straight man in my view. Minnie Driver as Skylar is the surprise casting. I wonder if the character was originally meant to be British, or whether they just rewrote it to suit her. I’ve never met a Brit called ‘Skylar’ however (I’d only ever heard the name before as the [male] villain in Heroes). Ben Affleck has now gone on to write (and direct) two further Boston-set movies: Gone, Baby Gone and The Town. Having now seen what he is capable of doing when he is not a blockbuster romantic lead I am much more likely to give them a watch. I’m aware that there has been a bit of a backlash towards Good Will Hunting, but for me, watching it for the first time 15 years after it was released (15 years? Christ, I was at Cambridge myself at that point!) I thought it stood up very well. It is definitely worth a watch. 

Two geniuses: Damon and Affleck scripted the film,
starred in it, wrote the femetoon, sang the femetoon...

What have I learnt about Massachusetts?
The Southie projects of Boston are 40 minutes by train and a world away from the university areas of Cambridge. South Boston is full of beaten-down houses with junk-filled yards and neon-lit bars full of Irish-Americans. The sense of humour is defiantly crude and working-class. Cambridge is another world, and is home to two absolute world-class universities in MIT and Harvard. Interactions between the two generally do not go smoothly: witness Lambeau finding the university maintenance department or him seeking out Sean in a pub and asking for a Perrier (“That’s French for ‘club soda’”). There is arrogance amongst the academics; Lambeau thinks that Sean teaching at a community college is a sign of failure and that the other man must by default be jealous of him.
Baseball is a central focus of life. Will and his mates even go to watch a Little League match. And the entire city focuses on the Red Sox baseball team. The easiest way for Sean to explain how much his wife meant to him is to recount how he passed up the chance to watch a legendary match to talk to her.  

Can we go there?
This is another film set in Boston. Again, South Boston features prominently, contrasted against the university area of Cambridge. But while some exteriors were filmed on location, most of the film was made in Toronto. The University of Toronto stood in for both MIT and Harvard, with the McLennan Physical Laboratories there providing the classrooms. Wycliffe College was the real-life location of Skylar’s dorm. The Harvard bar where Will so memorably puts down an arrogant student was supposed to be the Bow & Arrow Pub, but was actually the Upfront Bar & Grill on 106 Front Street East in Toronto. It was used as another ‘Boston bar’ in the John Cusack version of Fever Pitch in which the lead character supported the Red Sox rather than Arsenal. The novelty store Will later visits with Skylar was Ontario Speciality Co on Church Street – freakily after 73 years of operation it closed its doors forn the last time today.

The pals’ Southie local was in Boston however – Woody’s L St Tavern at 658 E Eighth Street (and these days it does cash in on its links to the film). The road in the closing credits is the Massachusetts Turnpike heading west through Stockbridge. And a number of exteriors were used, particularly around Harvard Square (where Will spots his history student competition through the window of Baskin-Robbins-Dunkin’ Donuts - “I got her number. How d’you like them apples?”). The Bow & Arrow and that branch of Dunkin’ Donuts have now been replaced by the Grafton Street Restaurant and Bar (the web address freaked me out because I used to live very near to Grafton Street in the real Cambridge in England). Also gone is ‘The Tasty, where Will and Skylar share a pickle-y kiss. They later meet up again at Au Bon Pain. Dunster House at Harvard served as the exterior of Skylar’s dorm, Sean taught at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, and Chuckie collects Will outside South Boston District Municipal Court. Wills house was at 190 W Sixth Street in South Boston, and is privately owned (by someone who has never seen the film). Sean takes Will to Boston Public Garden for his lecture. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

1 comment:

  1. I was born (1951) in Greater Boston, lived there nearly every year thru 1979. In some ways I miss it, in several major ways I DO NOT. I am fluent in swearing, but just about every movie in BossTown or E Mass in past 20+ years is LITTERED with F-bombs. Departed, Good Will, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Fighter, the flick about Whitey Bulger .... even The Equalizer. Hard to believe that Mass also had Jaws, Paper Chase, Love Story, Glory, the first version of the Thomas Crown Affair ....