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Good Will Hunting

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Everybody likes this film, except me. Considering that I’m a Van Sant fan, rating Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and To Die For all as excellent movies, my dissent is all the more perplexing, to me at any rate. So what’s going on? Why did this one not gain my goodwill?
You probably know the story line by now. Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is a tough working-class South Boston Irish kid who happens to be a genius. Tormented by the demons of his disadvantaged, dysfunctional up-bringing by foster parents, he prefers to spend this time drinking, fighting and hanging out than developing his extraordinary gifts. This leads to trouble with the law, but when his talents are spotted by Stellan Skarsgard’s Fields Medal-winning MIT professor (Will works as a cleaner there), Will agrees to therapy and study as the only alternatives to jail. After gobbling up a couple of sorry specimens of the counselling profession for breakfast, enter Robin Williams in a near reprise of his Dead Poets Society role, as the unconventional psychiatrist who tries to persuade him not to waste his abilities. Ben Affleck (who co-wrote the script with Damon) as his best buddy, and Minnie Driver as an English girl studying medicine at Harvard, with whom Will develops a relationship, complete the picture.




This is obviously Van Sant’s bid for the mainstream, and while it is not without integrity, and could have been a lot worse, the brush strokes are broad with the malls of middle America in mind. For starters, I couldn’t believe the romance between Damon and Driver (odd perhaps, when you consider that they were in the throes of an off screen affair), so that made the ending a bit hard to take. Also, there is a near fetishisation of Will’s genius. This guy makes you sick. Not only is he a whiz at organic chemistry, he also reads Nietzsche for fun. Music seems to be the only field of endeavour where he has no natural facility. Meanwhile, back in the real world, we all know that things just aren’t like that. I’ve no wish to promote the vice of specialisation, but it’s been a while since there have been any Renaissance men around. Since the Renaissance, in fact. Most ‘geniuses’ are very good at one thing, or two if they’re lucky. James Joyce may have revolutionised practices of writing in this century, but he wasn’t simultaneously developing the theory of relativity. He wisely left that to Albert Einstein, who in turn wisely left the novel writing to Jemser. (Although Albert wasn’t too proud to employ a Joycean neologism to denominate one of the several hypothetical components of elementary particles. ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark...’ Finnegans Wake.) Speaking of the well-known Mittle-European physicist, it is worth quoting from an essay by Roland Barthes in Mythologies, ‘The Brain of Einstein’: ‘What this machine of genius was supposed to produce was equations. Through the mythology of Einstein, the world blissfully regained the image of knowledge reduced to a formula.’ Good Will Hunting really trades on this image, and it is Will’s ability to solve complex mathematical equations set by Skarsgard for his class (which none of them can fathom) and reduce them to an essence, which is suppose to clinch our belief in his prodigious intellect. Yet, we’ve all known people who can breeze through differential calculus, or quote reams of Shakespeare by rote, who are utter pillocks in most other areas of their lives. In short, I didn’t buy the idea that just because this guy was intelligent, he was also creative. And even if he was, so what?
For what lies at the heart of Good Will Hunting is a reinstatement of the old adage that knowledge is power, here a specifically macho version of authority, or the wielding of power. There is a scene in a bar where Will faces down a preppy college kid by displaying his superior grasp of a bunch of socio-economic and historic theorists (by the by, where does he find the time to do all this reading, between his janitor’s job and going out getting drunk every night with his old white trash buddies?). But this posturing is little more than just a fight about a girl, amounting to the intellectual equivalent of ‘my penis is bigger than your penis’, survival of the smartest, if not the fittest. (‘My brain? That’s my second favourite organ.’ Woody Allen. ‘I thought my brain was my favourite organ. But then I thought, what organ is telling me that?’ Emo Philips.) However, I do not think a subtle Darwinian or Freudian point about history being the history of getting laid is what was intended.
‘But you’re taking this feel good movie much too seriously’ I hear you object. Fine, but at a time when an ostensibly deeply unPC film like As Good As It Gets can draw attention to a fundamental flaw in American society - the failure of the state to provide proper basic health care for its citizens, why couldn’t Good Will Hunting do the same as regards the education system there? Granted, the high cost of going to college in the States is highlighted, and there is a hilariously funny rant by Will about the workings of the military-industrial complex when he is head-hunted by the FBI, but again, we’re back to broad brush strokes: either he’s going to earn a fortune in consultancy, or his going to work on a building site for the rest of his life? Life ain’t like that. And what about all the averagely bright guys and girls from ghettos like South Boston? Because they’re not one in a million like our Will, they’ve no choice but the building site? Good Will Hunting questions these values only to reinstate them more powerfully. From a director who has demonstrated such finesse in portraying the lives of dispossessed and marginalised young men in Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, and given us such a relentless exploration and exposure of a sociopathically blindly ambitious individual in To Die For, this must rank as a disappointment.

First published in Film Ireland









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