No. 185 – Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good Will Hunting. You know the one. Ben Affleck & Matt Damon. Won the screenplay Oscar (and Golden Globe) even though they were, like, 20 when they wrote it! The one about maths that isn’t A Beautiful Mind. It’s so well written even the title is a play on words. I think. I never could quite work that bit out.

I didn’t remember a huge amount of the film from my original viewing. There was a blackboard, Robin Williams, and a killer Ben Affleck line. I’d forgotten Minnie Driver. That was a pleasant surprise. If by pleasant you mean that feeling when you stumble into the kitchen on a Sunday morning with a raging hangover to find there’s no milk for a cup of tea, so you drag your half dead self to the corner shop for milk, only to discover the shop burned down, and then finally arrive back home empty handed and dry mouthed to find you’ve locked yourself out.

Still, best original screenplay Oscar winner must be worth a punt. It beat Woody Allen, for crying out loud. What quickly becomes clear, however, is that this screenplay is less about the story and more about the killer lines. It’s almost like they were playing at film making. You can imagine Affleck & Damon in a writers’ room, tossing a football around and brainstorming. Fair play, this resulted in some great speeches, which made for some pretty great film scenes. It also resulted in one of them saying “Hey, apropos of nothing, we should totally have a slow motion fight scene set to Jerry Rafferty’s Baker Street!” And the other one agreeing.

Snappy lines: check. Clever speeches: check. Class commentary: check check check. Now we’ll just fill the rest with some vague character set pieces and a large amount of Matt Damon slumped on an otherwise empty subway carriage, staring into space. Will’s a thinker, you see. That’s what thinkers do. He may hang out with socially disadvantaged Chuckie (Affleck: wears a tracksuit, says ‘fuck’ a lot) and cronies (zero distinguishing features) but he’s got something special. He cleans the corridors at MIT, where some fancy professor posts maths problems on a chalkboard, and people try to solve them. For kicks! Damon mops and polishes through his mental arithmetic, to the point where no one else has much hope of standing upright on that particular piece of flooring, let alone solving a tricky batch of algebra anywhere near it. Basically, he wins by default.

In order to avoid jail for the aforementioned incident (crimes against Scottish singer/songwriters), Will is instead forced to hang out with the fancy professor, cultivating his talent for high fiving over equations and generally making maths look cool. He also gets free therapy thrown in. To sort out the fact that he’s emotionally dead inside. Indeed, although the great therapist eventually cracks him, Will shows more passion about free education via public library than he ever does to his girl.

So to the love story. With Minnie Driver. The extent of Will & Skylar’s relationship is this: one date to a fancy dress shop (she’s so wacky!), a post coital conversation in which she uses a Magic 8 ball extensively (so very wacky!), a drinking session in a Tavern where she meets his mates and tells a knob gag, and a kiss in an outdoor café which is awkward to the point of actual physical discomfort. She then compounds viewer squirming by Dick Van Dyking the line “It’s not fair, I’ve bin ‘ere for four years, and I’ve only just found you.” This character is badly written and poorly acted. Will’s breakdown and self-destruction hinges on the fact that he’s desperately in love with Skylar. Only I don’t see it. Where was it? Behind the comedy glasses in the junk store? At the end of that god awful blow job joke? For the purposes of the Top 250 challenge, I was willing to give Driver a chance. But, frankly, I find her Best Actress Oscar nomination bemusing.

Full disclosure, I won’t hear a bad word against Robin Williams. (Unless, maybe, that word has four letters, begins with ‘J’ and ends with ‘ack’.) He’s a cuddly, cardiganed, hairy masterpiece. The delivery of his speeches in this film are on par with Jed Bartlett, proliferation of the term ‘chief’ notwithstanding. It’s a fucking good job they got him. He’s great at playing a world weary academic, and you can bet Ben Affleck was screaming “O Captain! My Captain!” from his folding chair the day they filmed the “It’s not your fault” scene. Williams steals the show. Sean and his dead wife are an infinitely better love story than Will and Skylar.

Really? REALLY?!

Once he’s set up his pal with the girl, Affleck’s Chuckie barely gets a look in the rest of the film. But when his big speech finally comes, it is suitably heart wrenching. “You know what the best part of my day is? For about ten seconds from when I pull up to the curb until I get to your door. ‘Cause I think maybe I’ll get up there and knock on the door, and you won’t be there.” That’s the stuff great screenplays are made of. When he delivers this line at the dumpster, it’s angry and poetic and paints an emotional picture. But at the culmination of the film, when Affleck actually gets to act out those ten seconds? Honestly? It’s all a bit gummy. Don’t worry Ben, you’ll get another chance next year when you save the world from a Texas sized asteroid. Don’t let Bruce Willis totally steal your thunder, will you?

I know you’re not supposed to speculate on what happens after the film finishes. You’re supposed to trust the fact that Jerry Maguire got his fair share of that final 11.2 million dollar deal, that Garland Greene enjoyed his new found freedom without making any more human hats, and that Danny & Sandy’s flying car didn’t crash into a nearby power plant as the credits rolled. But I’m concerned Affleck & Damon didn’t think this one through. Will didn’t want to spend his life “sittin’ around and explaining shit to people.” And ok, Skylar has money so he’ll never need to work again. But he’ll be bored out of his amazing, genius mind. That’s not what Chuckie wanted him to do with his winning lottery ticket. I secretly imagine a Five Years Later epilogue, where he’s ditched Skylar for the screeching Brit harpy that she is, and is running some kind of academy with Robin Williams in India. One with exceptionally shiny floors.


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