Soft touch in the head

Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting is all heart, no brain

Will's ongoing normalization is thick with psychobabble. At his big bawling breakthrough, Sean embraces him and says over and over, "It's not your fault." The guy whose face he pounded for that kindergarten slur might have a different opinion. The filmmakers go in for this kind of sentimental victimology because it relieves Will of any responsibility for his actions. He's just this abused, hurt kid.

But suppose Will's behavior and complications came about not only because he grew up working-class and abused but because of the nature of his genius? The filmmakers don't really explore that possibility, because to do so would turn Will into an elite. And yet surely the way a genius sees the world has great bearing on how he lives in it. The crux of Good Will Hunting ought not to be how normal genius can be but, rather, how provocatively different it can be.

Because Will's gifts are not explored except as a sidelight, we never even get the sense of elation he might feel at solving a monumental math problem--or, more to the point, his frustration in not solving a problem. Everything comes so easy to him that we are never permitted to see his passion for the way his mind works. The filmmakers' notions of genius are rudimentary: Will is like some brainiac who grasps solutions painlessly and reels off reams of facts stored in his photographic memory. This is a dolt's idea of genius--Will comes across as a human parlor trick.

Still, despite his showing off, Will clearly is clamping down on his "potential." He doesn't want to release his gifts to the world because, we are made to feel, the world doesn't deserve them. Good Will Hunting offers up a society in which the uses of intelligence are all corrupt. Lambeau sends Will on an interview that turns out to be for a job in military decoding. This, of course, gives Will the opportunity to get all self- righteous about using his brains to kill innocent people in unjust wars. Saint Will. The film, of course, doesn't posit any ways in which Will's genius might be used for peace-making--we never see those job interviews.

Will's sanctification also has its working-class-hero side. When, for example, he demolishes with his brain a preppie snoot in a Cambridge bar, we're meant to recognize that, for Will, intellectual confrontation doubles as class war. But surely Damon, who was a Harvard undergraduate, must know that gifted South Boston students have attended the university on scholarship. If Will has closed himself out of the academy, it's not the academy's fault--despite what the film implies.

Damon--as actor, not as co-screenwriter--is the best thing about Good Will Hunting. His performance isn't particularly modulated, but he carries an impending sense of violence that keeps his scenes on edge. Will's first meeting with Sean, in which the patient humiliates his therapist by intuitively honing in on his weakness, is unsettling and multilayered in a way the rest of the film isn't. It suggests a cruelty underneath Will's showing off. And Driver brings some freshness to her rather stale role.

Williams doesn't. He's so swaddled in good intentions that he might as well be playing a teddy bear. Williams must feel a personal connection to this movie: He has, after all, been "normalizing" his own genius in the movies for a long time now--to his detriment and ours.

Good Will Hunting pretends to face up to the big questions. Here's one it avoids: What if the cost of Will's anguish was a great scientific discovery? Suppose his life was a godawful psychotherapeutic mess but out of it came the Unified Field Theory or a cancer cure? This is not something the filmmakers confront. They're content to send Will on his merry way as a self-realized good guy. What matters to them is that he loves himself.

Good Will Hunting.
Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Starring Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver. Opens Thursday.

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