There’s nothing quite as fun in movies as when an apparently innocuous individual unexpectedly unpacks his or her superpowers. Like when that silent guy at the bar, who wants nothing more than a cold beer and a quiet place to drink it in (that’s a Clint Eastwood line), gets fed up with being harassed, and the opposition suddenly realizes it’s knocked over a hornet’s nest.
In “Good Will Hunting,” this occurs when 20-year-old MIT university janitor Will Hunting (Matt Damon) is hanging out with his blue-collar South Boston buddies in a Cambridge bar packed with world-class Harvard minds. He notices that his best friend, Chuckie (Ben Affleck), at the other end of the bar is on the losing end of a publicly embarrassing, predatory-competitive debate about history—with a Harvardian.
Now Will’s a tough kid; he put a gang member in the hospital during a street fight. He could easily reduce the disdainful, pony-tailed Harvard guy to a grease stain on the rug, but he doesn’t need to. Because he’s a photographic-memory-having, speed-reading math genius with an encyclopedic, memorized metric ton of trivia in his head, who is also able to intuit people’s thoughts and secrets. As mentioned: superpowers.
Will: “The sad thing about a guy like you is in 50 years you’re gonna start doing some thinking of your own, and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One: Don’t do that (plagiarize). And two: You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a[n] … education you could’ve got for a dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library.”
Harvard guy: “Yeah, but I’ll have a degree. And you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-through on our way to a ski trip.”
Will: “Yeah, maybe. But at least I won’t be unoriginal. By the way, if you have a problem with that, we could just step outside and we could figure it out.”
Harvard guy: “Nah, it’s cool.”
Chuckie: “How ya like me now?!”
“Good Will Hunting” was famously co-authored by early-career Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, for which they won Oscars, thereby elevating their showbiz cache into the stratosphere. It’s equal parts bromance, romance, redemption story, coming-of-age story, and Hero’s Journey.
Will Hunting spends his days mopping floors, his nights drinking with his bros who, in addition to Chuckie, include Chuckie’s obnoxious and hilariously clueless kid brother Morgan (Casey Affleck) and stoic mechanic Billy (Cole Hauser). Weekends are spent in batting cages, at the dog-racing track, attending Little League games, picking fights with local rival gangs, followed by more barhopping.
Will’s essentially a ghost at MIT. One day, decorated mathematician and MIT professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard) posts a high-octane math formula on the hallway chalkboard outside his room, to challenge his students. Will, on his floor-mopping rounds, sees it and solves the formula overnight, scribbling on pieces of envelopes and creating an instant buzz as to who the mystery student-genius might be.
When no one steps forward, Lambeau puts another problem on the board that took him and his colleagues two years to figure out. Lickety-split, Will solves it, shocking Lambeau to his core and inspiring him to track down the mystery math superhero.
Meanwhile, juvie-genius Will finally ends up in jail. He’s got a rap sheet as long as his arm, but he’s previously been successful defending himself against various charges of assault (impersonating an officer, grand theft auto, resisting arrest, and so on). He knows the law back to the 1800s, but he’s not able to get the charges dismissed this time, finally running into a judge who will not tolerate, in this case, the striking of an officer.
An 11th-Hour Save
Professor Lambeau figures out who solved his math problem, comes to Will’s rescue, and arranges for the directionless kid to be released into his care. He takes Will under his wing on the condition that they solve weekly math formulas together, and that Will attends weekly, court-mandated therapy sessions with a psychologist.
Will reluctantly accepts and goes through a series of therapists, all of whom he variously derides, messes with, or calls out for being secretly gay, until he meets the one who won’t throw in the towel: Sean Maguire (Robin Williams). It turns out that Sean is also originally from working-class Southie (a South Boston area). Sean teaches at a local community college, wears a Boston Red Sox jacket, and was Lambeau’s freshman-year roommate at MIT.
Sean offers an escape route from the confines of (in the parlance of the Hero’s Journey) the village compound. In Will’s case, this means from the meaningless, massively underachieving, drudge-filled existence he clings to out of a misguided romantic notion of a life doing nothing more than eventually attending his buddies’ kids’ baseball games.
Will gets inside Sean’s head and rearranges the furniture in a heartbeat. Which is good, because Sean nearly chokes Will unconscious for disrespecting Sean’s wife. Young, wayward men and boys need a powerful male authority figure to show them exactly where the boundaries are.
For Sean, the challenge is figuring out how to communicate through Will’s lightning-quick manipulative verbal dances, smokescreens, use of knowledge as a weapon, and psychic brick walls. He nails it: Will’s real smart, but he’s a boy; his glaring lack of worldly experiences can’t be validated by his giant stack of book-learning, and his lack of courage to be emotionally vulnerable is the thing that’s keeping his possibilities for self-actualization (and greatness) beyond his reach. Sean’s the first person ever to call Will on any of this. Robin Williams captured the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this role.
The most powerful scene, other than the famous “It’s not your fault” scene, is the one where Chuckie essentially kicks Will out of the nest—the village compound—and challenges him to be great:
Will: “Oh, come on! Why is it always this, I mean, I … owe it to myself to do this? What if I don’t want to?”
Chuckie: “Alright. No. No no…. you. You don’t owe it to yourself. You owe it to me. ’Cause tomorrow I’m gonna wake up and I’ll be fifty and I’ll still be doing this. … And that’s all right, that’s fine. I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket. … And that’s … ’cause I’d do anything to … have what you got. So would any of these … guys. It’d be an insult to us if you’re still here in twenty years. Hanging around here is a … waste of your time.”
Will: “You don’t know that.”
Chuckie: “I don’t?”
Will: “No. You don’t know that.”
Chuckie: “Oh, I don’t know that. Let me tell you what I do know. Every day I come by to pick you up. And we go out, we have a few drinks and a few laughs and it’s great. But you know what the best part of my day is? It’s for about ten seconds from when I pull up to the curb to when I get to your door. Because I think maybe I’ll get up there and I’ll knock on the door and you won’t be there. No goodbye, no see you later, no nothin’. Just left. I don’t know much, but I know that.”
At the 70th Academy Awards (up against the 11 nominations for “Titanic”), “Good Will Hunting” received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Actor (Damon), Best Director (Van Sant), Best Supporting Actress (Minnie Driver), Best Original Score (Danny Elfman), Best Song (Elliott Smith), and Best Picture. Damon and Affleck won as authors for Best Original Screenplay. The film was hugely successful, making more than $220 million.
“Good Will Hunting” isn’t autobiographical; childhood buddies Damon and Affleck both grew up relatively well-to-do and were both involved in the arts. Damon himself actually attended Harvard, which is why the theme of hidden genius is something he plays well, such as his poker-genius character in “Rounders.”
It is safe to say, though, that it’s the longstanding childhood friendship of two guys with the common goal to make it as actors that provided the magic that made “Good Will Hunting” work: their hilarious dude-chemistry and the hysterically realistic brotherly bickering between the two real-life Affleck brothers, not to mention Ben Affleck’s camaraderie with Cole Hauser—they’d both had their breakout roles in “Dazed and Confused” as high school football teammates.
It’s stood the test of time. It’s still highly inspirational for all those looking to challenge themselves and leave the nest.
‘Good Will Hunting’
Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser, Stellan Skarsgard, Minnie Driver
Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Dec. 5, 1997 (U.S.)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars