Will Hunting (Matt Damon), handsome and cocky, is a roughneck from South Boston, a 20-year-old janitor who walks with a cool, palms-out swagger and spends his days drinking, fighting, and horsing around with his neighborhood cronies. Did I mention that he’s also a genius on the level of Einstein or Da Vinci? A mathematical/literary prodigy, Will memorizes books as fast as he can flip through them, devises instant solutions to theorems that have stumped the world’s greatest thinkers, and avoids misdemeanor jail sentences by citing, off the top of his head, obscure legal statutes from the 19th century.
A street-lout savant, Will is the kind of only-in-the-movies showboat rebel who must have seemed a dream role for an aspiring star. In this case, he literally is: Matt Damon, who plays him, cowrote the script of Good Will Hunting (Miramax) with his boyhood chum Ben Affleck, the star of Chasing Amy, who has a small role here as Will’s joshing buddy. Teaming up with director Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, To Die For), the two have forged a fitfully engaging saintly-misfit fable glazed with Hollywood-therapeutic ”sensitivity”: It’s Searching for Bobby Fischer meets Ordinary People as reimagined by Oliver Sacks. Good Will Hunting is stuffed — indeed, overstuffed — with heart, soul, audacity, and blarney. You may not believe a minute of it, but you don’t necessarily want to stop watching.
What draws you in is Damon himself. For those who’ve only just seen his delicate, inquisitive performance in John Grisham’s The Rainmaker, he’s like a different actor here: rooster flashy, with a young narcissist’s killer grin, razory dimples, and eyes that look like they’d like to laser into the mind of whomever he’s talking to. As Will, Damon, who suggests a hunkier Leonardo DiCaprio (or, at times, a sweeter Matthew Modine), hangs back, lost in his alley-cat cool. Then, when provoked, he’ll launch into a blue streak of perception.
An orphan and self-destructive underachiever, Will gets caught between two symbolic fathers: an ambitious MIT professor (Stellan Skarsgard) and a hipster-mensch therapist (Robin Williams) who wants to mold him into a good person. Williams, whose mental radar is usually pitched too high for his fellow actors, clearly relishes a role that allows him to spar with genius. Bearded and shaggy, like a bohemian version of his clinical neurologist in Awakenings, Williams draws Damon into such a quicksilver intercepting each other’s thoughts.
The movie, unfortunately, follows Will as he learns to care: about a sassy British Harvard student (Minnie Driver), about his poor, abused, misunderstood self. Good Will Hunting is truly a young man’s movie — the hero is a tough loner, but he’s crying inside. I’d have less of a problem with the picture’s turning so touchy-feely if it didn’t sidestep its own most arresting question: What does it feel like for a ”normal” guy to share his body with a brain this big? For a good stretch, Damon and company make you want to know the answer. B