His Better Half

Good Will Hunting
area theaters, starts Thursday

GUS VAN SANT'S new film, while far from a "hetero sellout" (anybody remember Drugstore Cowboy?), does offer stingier helpings of the director's usual despair, loneliness, and cynicism. You might even call it "the feel-good movie of the season!"--if Amistad ("See, honey, the courts do work for everybody!") hadn't already stolen that crown. Certainly, Good Will Hunting contains much to please the entire family, provided Mom can ignore the odd obscenity and Uncle Bob some cursory Ivy League bashing. This sweetly earnest story of a working-class boy who rises above his station doesn't rock the boat so much as steer it crooked now and then.

As written by its rising stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Good Will Hunting takes a couple of risks: It actually focuses on a character of no small intelligence; and it raises that dicey issue of class. Will Hunting (Damon) is a Boston "Southie" in the Mark Wahlberg vein, a hard drinker, fighter, and lover. He's also brilliant. He can absorb books by skimming them and figure mathematic proofs that only five people in the world understand. We learn the latter bit when Will, working as a janitor at MIT, completes a proof left on a chalkboard. The intrigued math prof (Stellan Skarsgard) goes hunting for Will, and finds him in jail for assault. He springs him by promising to provide therapy, and there hangs the tale.

Because the psychologist Will faces is...Robin Williams! That is, Robin Williams with a "Southie" accent that sounds a lot like his sentimentally pursed Flubber/Mrs. Doubtfire mode. I'm not sure whether Robin Williams seems so Robin Williams-y here because his character is a cliché--the smarter-than-smart therapist with personal problems--or because his Sean has been written as more of a sounding board than a character. Either way, Sean keeps changing to fit the needs of the others: He's a no-bullshit but compassionate father figure for Will, and a reluctant but snappy rival for Skarsgard's Lambeau; neither pose carries much weight.

Meanwhile, the script drops in a love interest for Will. But despite Minnie Driver's lively, elegant efforts as a girlfriend named Skylar and some delightful romantic comedy (Will and Skylar's first date juggles sexy nuance and quirk), this move is pure smoke screen. Good Will Hunting remains a story of male rivalry--specifically the competition for one young man's beauteous potential. In one corner, Lambeau, whom Skarsgard (of Breaking the Waves) imbues with an aesthete's grace, emotionalism, and love of privilege; attending to Lambeau would land Will in a high-paying job and, perhaps, his mentor's arms. (Will is scripted hetero, but Van Sant films his mano-a-mano fist fights with voluptuous sensuality.)

Williams's Sean takes the second corner: He wants Will to "follow his heart"--by which he means that Will should make the same choices he made, and thereby justify them. In a suggestive scene early on, Sean tells Will how he met his wife. He had tickets to some Series game where Carlton Fisk waved the long ball fair. After he gives an awed Will the play-by-play (and Van Sant illustrates with footage), Sean admits he gave his ticket up. He chose to stay behind at a bar, because he'd seen a girl, the girl. He never went to the game. Given the still simmering tension between Sean and Lambeau, who were roommates in college, it's obvious what game Van Sant has on his mind. (It's also obvious why Sean is so crushed by Will's out-of-left-field conclusion: "You married the wrong woman!")

Finally, resting in the third corner is the ringer, Chuckie (Affleck). Will's longtime Southside buddy, Chuckie represents the stock role that in old Hollywood Horatio Alger-esque movies would've gone to a woman: He's the one who's left behind. In one of the film's purplest scenes, Chuckie urges Will to grab the brass ring. Do it for me, he spits, because I'd do it if I could. But Affleck's dark eyes have gone all misty, and it seems what he's really saying is: "Go, because I love you and want the best for you."

According to Good Will Hunting, "the best" means upward mobility, in terms not only of earnings but of lovers and friends. For all the movie's puncturing wit (there are some quite amusing scenes with grad students and corporate headhunters), every character assumes that talent will seek its own level--that social class, for instance, cannot hold back the gifted if they choose to use their gift. It's a pleasant notion, if not, in actual practice, a particularly nice one.

Good Will Hunting proves more ambivalent as to what specific path upward would be good for Will. The script goes with heartwarming (hetero) tradition. But Van Sant tags on a cool ending, leaving Will alone in the dark. Brother Joel will get the subtext. Like I said, it's fun for the whole family.

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