On the heels of Robin Williams suicide, a review of one of the few films I liked him in is apt. Williams’ community college prof and shrink, a potential brilliant who became waylaid by love and is now stricken with grief at her passing, is not exactly an original character. We know he is there to guide the damaged savant, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), and we also know that when all is said and done, both characters will have taught each other something valuable about life. Still, Williams is very subdued and meticulous in this performance, the exact opposite of his manic persona that, with the exception of The Fisher King, became more schtick and adrenaline than acting over time. He exudes a patience and knowledge that elevates much of the film’s schmaltz, and when he is riled, it is on the bedrock of communicated internal pain. It is a very fine performance and his sole Oscar for best supporting actor was well deserved. He is similarly restrained, and thus effective, in The World According to Garp, Dead Poets Society and Insomnia.
As for the film itself, I’ve always been very torn. The concept is smart (a working class Boston kid is also a genius, sadly, mopping floors at MIT), Gus Van Sant’s direction is inventive (the slo-motion rumble to Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” is a particularly nifty scene), the exchanges between the Southie pals (Damon, Ben Affleck – again, proving he can be very good in small doses – Casey Affleck and Cole Hauser) is believable, there is actual heat between Damon and his romantic interest, Minnie Driver, and Elliot Smith’s musical contributions are memorable. On the downside, while Damon is quite good as the lead, his character is kind of one big cheat. Plagued by his own demons, we are supposed to empathize with Will, but he seems a rather selfish, smug prick throughout. And this, despite just about every assist you can give a protagonist – he’s lonely, he was shuttled from foster home to foster home, he was beaten as a child, his enemies are grotesque caricatures that lack only the villain’s mwahahahahahaha, and yet . . .
Perhaps it is just me, but I think it’s a toss-up here as to who is the real shit. I guess it goes to the Hah-vahhhd pony tail on the strength of the pony tail, but much of the film is Will Hunting sneering at and making fun of the uptight folks who admire his genius, and while seeking to profit from it, don’t do him any injustice at all.
It reminded me of Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome: “There’s Hawkeye and Trapper John back in Korea. I never did like those guys. They fancied themselves super-decent and super-tolerant, but actually had no use for anyone who was not exactly like them. What they were was super-pleased with themselves. In truth, they were the real bigots, and phony at that. I always preferred Frank Burns, the stuffy, unpopular doc, a sincere bigot.”
So, as the music swells, and Will Hunting escapes the clutches of Southie to chase love, I’m pretty sure he’s going to revert to being a big prick soon enough. Only now, Minnie Driver will be there to socialize him.