What makes Good Will Hunting (1997) so entertainingly watchable is that it feels like greatness, which is its own kind of greatness. It takes extremely difficult concepts like advanced mathematics and psychoanalysis but makes the movie easy to understand by making those concepts window dressing to its story. This is a movie in which people say what they want and go after it and we’re right behind them.
At MIT, a lauded professor named Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) puts a problem up on a blackboard and tells his students whoever solves it is owed his admiration and a write-up in the school paper. The next day he finds it solved but anonymously. It turns out the kid who mops the floor, a rough customer from the bad side of Boston named Will Hunting (Matt Damon), is the mystery mathematician. Lambeau is intrigued and discovers that not only is Will the brightest analytical mind of his generation, but that he’s facing jail time for assaulting a cop during a fight in his neighborhood. Lambeau talks to the judge to allow Will out under his supervision, which Will is happy to oblige him for, but with the condition that Will visit a psychiatrist once a week, which Will is less than pleased about. After Will toys around with a number of pompous self-help gurus, Lambeau sets Will up with Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a psychology teacher at a community college who Lambeau went to school with. Meanwhile, Will is seeing Skylar (Minnie Driver), a Harvard student, and is in danger of pushing her away because of his defense mechanism that drives him to stop loving people before they stop loving him, the same mechanism that is keeping him from realizing his potential in math. Will would prefer to spend his time with Chuckie (Ben Affleck, who co-wrote the script with Damon) and his neighborhood friends, getting drunk and working construction.
As told by director Gus Van Sant and Affleck and Damon, the movie only hints at the deeper level of the nature of genius but that isn’t the point of the movie, which is exceptionally well-mounted and entertaining. The script, which won an Oscar, isn’t polished; it’s often too broad, but it has a sophomoric charm that is absolutely appropriate. It gives that undergraduate feeling of spontaneity; it’s shocking how many scenes begin with an unexplained non sequitur or odd (and technically pointless) aside. These add an attractive feeling of kids goofing off, filling their script with inside jokes and references to the things that make them laugh, when a more seasoned writer would be more focused. Even the title is a weak pun, but it fits the timbre of the movie perfectly: pseudo-deep, not too serious with the lingering feeling that it all may be a joke (a joke that Van Sant is completely in on—this may be the only Best Picture nominee that ironically uses “Afternoon Delight” over its ending credits). Take the math in the movie, which sounds very sophisticated, but what are these problems that Will is solving? And why? And what happens when he does? There are a lot of shots of smart men looking at pieces of paper or overhead slides or blackboards with wondrous looks of admiration in their eyes but we never find out what it means, like it is some part of an elaborate put-on.
Within the context of the movie this isn’t a problem; it’s not a story about a math genius (whatever that means) but about genius itself, and these jokey aspects are part of what make it so entertaining. When I was in college, my friends and I loved a documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now (1979) called Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991). The doc features Marlon Brando, who was the alleged savior of the floundering project, showing up on set overweight and underprepared. There’s an outtake in the movie of Brando delivering his famous “The horror” monologue in which he abruptly stops, midsentence, to say,“I swallowed a bug,” when it’s clear there isn’t an insect within a cubic mile of him. To crack each other up, we’d say, “I swallowed a bug,” whenever we’d want to get out of a situation. Why do I mention this? Damned if Morgan (Casey Affleck), one of Will’s friends in Good Will Hunting doesn’t excuse himself from an uncomfortable position by saying, in Brando’s exact tone, “I swallowed a bug.” There are more than a few moments like this in the film.
Beyond this, the script has a refreshing directness. Despite the hidden wounds and psychological obscuration, the wants and needs of the characters are fairly straightforward and well-defined. The script generates characters we understand and gives us something to be interested in, watching how they resolve their problems. It’s the simplest form of storytelling, but it’s amazing how rarely it’s done well, especially considering that when it is done well, it’s terribly compelling. I know what these people want, even if that thing is to know themselves, and the filmmaking is clear. It’s a story, a good one, not quite as deep as it pretends to be, but told like the jokes Will and his friends tell around the bar, rapturously, with a few asides, but never without motivation. Its quirkiness and direct simplicity make it capable of generating wonderful scenes, particularly between Will and Maguire, including a reenactment of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, the greatest baseball game ever played, to which Maguire gave up his tickets because he was meeting his future wife, a fact that Will can’t believe. Certainly their breakthrough moment in which Maguire repeatedly tells Will, “It’s not your fault,” has a raw power. It also smooths over some elements that would feel underwritten with a more guarded script. We get hints of deep-rooted academic rivalries and professional jealousies and glimpses of Will’s resentment of money and what he thinks of as honest work. All of these feel substantial though little time is given to them because they all are parts of the main story and they are efficiently spelled out. The relationship between Skylar and Will is brief, but we get quickly emotionally invested because the questions they ask are so direct. Do you love me, yes or no? is a terribly powerful sentiment, exploitative perhaps, but put to good use here. In fact, there’s very little that isn’t put to good use here—this is a feel-good movie.