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An Uncertain Match Made in Hollywood

TIMES FILM CRITIC

By this time everyone who cares knows about the fairy tale beginnings of “Good Will Hunting.” Actors and boyhood friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, disgruntled with the material they were seeing, wrote a film for themselves to star in, a film that would let them shine.

A good deal of this “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” charm is still visible in “Good Will Hunting’s” story of how a blue-collar math genius with a chip on his shoulder comes to terms with civilization. Having lived with this material for years, both actors (who went on to burgeoning careers, Damon starring in “John Grisham’s The Rainmaker” and Affleck in “Chasing Amy”) are strong and believable and generate considerable appeal. Would that were enough.

But what Damon and Affleck considered one of their script’s commercial strengths, a character they’d written specifically to attract a major star, turns out to be a flaw. And the process of turning “Good Will Hunting” into a $15-million to $20-million film, co-starring Robin Williams and directed by Gus Van Sant, magnified that flaw as only the movie business can.

The result is an uneasy hybrid of old and new Hollywood, where the engaging and independent spirit the actors provide coexists shakily with the kind of traditional sticky sentimentality that characterized films like “Dead Poets Society,” “Awakenings” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”

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“Good Will Hunting’s” premise, however, is a clever and delicious one. It starts when a professor named Lambeau (“Breaking the Waves’ ” Stellan Skarsgard), the star of MIT’s math department, posts an especially difficult problem on the blackboard outside his class. Mysteriously, the answer appears, but no one confesses to having put it there.

What the audience knows that Lambeau doesn’t is that the problem solver is Will Hunting (Damon), a part-time MIT janitor and full-time roughneck who grew up poor and scrappy as an orphan in South Boston, a working-class neighborhood known as Southie.

Will may live a life of beer, brawls and belches with best friend Chuckie (Affleck) and their buddies, but under the surface he is one of the great math geniuses the world has known. Plus, he’s got a photographic memory that enabled him to memorize the sum of human knowledge for, as he puts it, "$1.50 in late charges.”

Since being an unrecognized genius is probably a common fantasy, this is a pleasant and shrewd scenario, and it works especially well in a scene where Will simultaneously deflates an arrogant Harvard guy (yes, there are some) and makes a favorable impression on Skylar (Minnie Driver), a feisty pre-med student who likes his style. Damon is so effective and charming in this tailor-made role he compels us to be on Will’s side even when he’s at his most bratty.

Never too busy to get into a brawl, Will hits the wrong person and ends up facing serious prison time. But Lambeau, who has figured out who solved his problem, offers to get Will released if the lad promises to get therapy to curb his antisocial tendencies.

Will agrees, but since messing with people’s minds is one of his hobbies, your average therapist is unable to deal with him. But then Lambeau remembers his old college roommate Sean McGuire (Williams). Not only is he a therapist, but he’s unconventional, a fellow Southie, and someone who also had difficulty fulfilling his potential. What a coincidence!

If this appears a bit contrived, it’s just the beginning. While the idea of therapist able to rescue Will from himself is perhaps inevitable, the part as written is pat. As much improvisers as writers of their own roles, Affleck and Damon lack the craft to give McGuire speeches that aren’t so fake-sensitive it’s amazing Will doesn’t laugh the healer out of the room. And giving the therapist a problem that maybe Will can help him work out plays as by the numbers as it sounds.

Though it’s unexpected given the nature of his stand-up work, Williams has played a conventionally understanding if eccentric mentor so often that his presence in a film like this has become a tip-off that it’s going to be unremittingly middle of the road. The practice has made Williams better at the part, but his is still the most stodgy and unconvincing aspect of an otherwise lively film.

If Williams seems intent on turning his career into a big-screen version of “Father Knows Best,” eccentric director Gus Van Sant is apparently determined to become the next Frank Capra. While it’s nice to see Van Sant challenging himself (no one in their right mind wants to see “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues: The Reunion”), it would be nice if some of the edge he brought to the mainstream “To Die For” found its way to the screen here.

With a resolution as tidy as the patterns we see a single scull’s oars make on the Charles River, what Van Sant has directed conforms to Hollywood’s patterns in every way that counts. While the charismatic performances of Damon and Affleck make “Good Will Hunting” a difficult entertainment to resist, doing just that is not as hard as the film would like to think.

* MPAA rating: R, for strong language, including sex-related dialogue. Times guidelines: a joke about oral sex.

‘Good Will Hunting’

Robin Williams: Sean McGuire

Matt Damon: Will Hunting

Ben Affleck: Chuckie

Stellan Skarsgard: Lambeau

Minnie Driver: Skylar

A Lawrence Bender production, released by Miramax Films. Director Gus Van Sant. Producer Lawrence Bender. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jonathan Gordon, Su Armstrong. Screenplay Ben Affleck & Matt Damon. Cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier. Editor Pietro Scalia. Costumes Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Music Danny Elfman. Production design Melissa Stewart. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.

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* At Beverly Connection, La Cienega Avenue and Beverly Boulevard, Beverly Hills, (310) 659-5911; and Broadway Cinemas, 1441 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, (310) 458-1506.


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