I recently had some time off of work and wanted to see if I could fill in a few of my cinematic gaps. Everyone has some gaps: one of those movies that has been deemed a “classic” that everyone but you has seen and you get shamed as soon as you admit that you haven’t seen it, even though they probably have gaps of their own that they aren’t admitting to.
Anyway… one of these gaps for me had always been “Good Will Hunting.” I’ve had ample opportunities to watch it in the past, but I just never had the urge to. I felt like I’d seen it already from the onslaught of references to it that are dropped in casual conversation. In fact, hearing people drop “my boy’s wicked smaaahhhht” into conversation every time someone says something marginally coherent probably deterred me from watching this movie more than anything else for all these years.
I knew the gist of the story: a genius boy would rather hang out with his bonehead Boston friends than help change the world so now he has to go to therapy in order to squeeze out some emotional scenes that could land him an Oscar nomination. Cool. I get it.
So now that I’ve actually seen it, did it work? Is it harder for a movie to win you over if you’ve been told for 21 years that it’s one of the greatest of all time?
The answer is simple: I thought it was okay.
Yeah, being told this movie is incredible for two decades did not do it any favors. Part of the reason it became so iconic right off the bat in 1997 is because it took everyone by surprise. A pair of fresh faces in Damon and Affleck, Boston movies not really being a “thing” yet and the emergence of the Mirimax machine all came together to deliver a whallop on audiences that they never knew they wanted. If this movie comes out in 2018, it makes a few million at the box office and becomes just another Oscar-bait, feel-good movie that gets nominated for a couple awards and then is never thought about again but because it came out of nowhere in ’97, before movies of this ilk had taken over, it became a smash hit, made stars out of Damon and Affleck and snagged Robin Williams an Oscar.
Here’s the thing though, watching it for the first time now, isn’t as impressive. It’s great that this movie gave us Damon and Affleck and they should be immensely proud of what they’ve accomplished but looking at this without nostalgically-tinted sunglasses, this is pretty run-of-the-mill Mirimax fare. It’s easy to get caught up and identify with Will Hunting because deep down, we’d all like to believe that we have some super special talent that separates us from everyone else (when in reality we don’t). I think people get a little self serving and believe themselves to be intelligent for watching and appreciating this movie which is crammed full of scientific jargon when in reality those are script flourishes and what we are really watching is a pretty standard melodrama about a tough-guy, boy-genius, and his sensitive therapist.
A little more nuance would have been nice. We get it, Will Hunting could have any incredible job in the world but doesn’t want one. How do they communicate that he’d rather just be a nobody from Southie? He literally works as part of a fucking demolition crew. “I don’t wanna wear a suit and crunch numbahs all day with a bunch of fahkin’ nerds. I just wanna break things with my fahkin’ hammah and drink beers with my buddies.”
Faulting the script of first-time writers kinda feels like a cheap move and it is, but couldn’t someone they worked with pause and tell them that some of it might be a little on the nose?
The movie mostly hinges on the scenes between Damon and Williams and some with Damon and Minnie Driver. The therapy scenes are fine for being as predictable as they are, “hah, dude if you think I’m gonna open up to you, you’re fahkin’ dreaming.” [10 scenes later] “Holy shit, doc. You tricked me into opening up to you and made me fahkin’ cry. You know what? You’re all right, you little fahka.”
His scenes with Driver are promising, if not a little underdeveloped. They either need to devote a little more time to their relationship or scrap the whole thing and just let this movie be the sausage fest that it’s trying so hard to pretend not to be. She’s good though! She deserved a better career! Someone get Minnie Driver back in the game!
If there’s one aspect of this movie that truly worked like a charm, it’s my man Ben Affleck. Affleck sweeps through this movie with total ease. The man is a movie star. He just is, he always was and he always will be. Obviously he can play a bonehead Bostonian in his sleep but he’s just got that Affleck charm that works so well. The scene where he shouts “RETAINER” at the corporate suits might have been the only time in the whole movie where I actually reacted out loud. And his famous “everyday, I come up to your doorstep and hope you’re not there…” blah blah blah scene is actually really good! I was so worried about it the whole movie because I loved him the whole time and I knew it was coming and thus far, none of the “classic” scenes had worked on me the way I wanted them to yet, but then, BAM, Affleck rocked me right in the face. He doesn’t ham it up, he just stands there and fahkin’ tells it like it is, very understated. What could have very easily been some eyeroll-inducing, actor-y monologue that only ended up in the script because Affleck was like “hey, I need a scene where I get to act too,” was actually the most nuanced scene in the whole movie.
The problem is that the movie doesn’t really have much to say. It feels a little bit like Damon just wishes he was this boy-genius so dreamed up this movie where he got to be one. But do we learn anything from all this? What’s the message? Life is all about finding an equitable balance between going on dates, breaking things with your sledgehammer and doing your genius research? What do you want from me Damon? I don’t think you want anything from me. I think you just want me to think of you as a cool guy who is just like Will Hunting.
So is the movie an incredible watch if you’re viewing it for the first time over two decades later? No, not really. It’s pretty good. I totally see why it made the splash that it did and I’m glad we got Damon & Affleck from it; still bummed we didn’t get more of Driver after it though (but some of that may be tangled up in the gross Harvey Weinstein spiderweb of it all). The movie does work as a whole but when you already have a sense of what you’re gonna get from it, it’s hard to be truly “wowed” by the material. None of this is the actual movie’s fault though.
In the end, I just want to see more of Ben Affleck doing goofy, bonehead Ben Affleck things while maintaining a heart of gold.