Rated R - Running time: 2:06 - Released 12/25/97

What do you do with a genius who wants to be a regular guy? Apparently, you call Robin Williams.

In this very touching drama set in Cambridge, Mass., the brain capital of the United States, home of Harvard and MIT, reality of story combines with reality of performance to give us some of the most heartfelt emotions currently on the big screen. Liberal use of improvisation, which is Williams's trademark, helps this film immensely, and he turns in one of his best performances, much more understated than his usual over-the-top style. Matt Damon, who made an excellent showing in The Rainmaker, has perhaps topped that performance here. And Minnie Driver, who plays his love interest, comes very close to stealing the show with her own impeccable performance.

Will Hunting (Damon), a janitor working in the hallowed halls of MIT, is a voracious reader and mathematician to whom the complex formulas studied at his place of employment come naturally. He is not a student, however, because he was never guided in that direction. He was an orphan who was abused as a child, and as he grew he learned to fight his way out of difficult situations. He has a group of friends who are all of the same ilk, with one exception: they are not geniuses.

When Will figures out the answer to a complex bonus test question written on the hallway chalkboard and intended for any student who wanted to try it, his talent is discovered by the renowned Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard). But when Lambeau tries to get Will to apply his Einstein-like abilities, Will is uninterested. He likes his life with his friends and considers people who rise to the top to be pompous phonies. He prefers the idea of having a more "noble" profession, like that of a janitor. Unfortunately, he even loses that job when he is arrested for assault resulting from one of his habitual gang fights.

So Lambeau calls up Sean McGuire (Williams), an old friend who teaches psychology at a small community college nearby. And from then on, he and Will spend their time trying to out-psych each other while Will develops a relationship with a Harvard girl named Skylar (Driver).

This is obviously intended to be a "feel good" movie, with its emotional journeys and interconnection between the characters, but I think its best feature is the improvisation sprinkled liberally throughout the script. One wonders if there even was a script for some of the scenes. This can be disasterous with the wrong actors, but with the help of director Gus Van Sant Jr., these folks pull it off brilliantly. The brotherly, inter-abusive camaraderie between Will and his friends, Chuckie (Ben Affleck), Billy (Cole Hauser), and Morgan (Casey Affleck), has not been seen since Diner. (The script was actually co-written by Damon and Ben Affleck.) And Will's relationship with Skylar is especially fun to watch; the two have completely given themselves over to the situation and obviously enjoy each other immensely (and it doesn't hurt that Damon and Driver apparently established an offscreen romance during production). I do not think it would be out of line for Driver to be nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this performance.

The movie does drag in parts, though, and toward the end meanders somewhat. The long-awaited "moment of connection" between Will and Sean is overly simplistic, and, although it is played with deep emotion by Damon, the script fails to convince. The resolution of the relationship between Will and Skylar is also rather anticlimactic. We know what's going to happen, but we are cheated out of seeing it, so the effect is a sort of teaser with no payoff.

With Good Will Hunting, one is left just a little disappointed in a movie that is absolutely excellent in many parts, but loses its way and fizzles out prematurely. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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