THE SCRIPT FOR "Good Will Hunting," written by the young actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, was one of Hollywood's hottest properties long before Gus Van Sant and Robin Williams became attached to it. Such projects tend to be cursed, and now the movie reaches the screen as an agreeable, if flawed, romantic fantasy with rather too much riding on it. Here's the stock market report: Damon's a sex bomb; Van Sant can direct a mainstream film. But for all the moviemaking here, there isn't a whole lot of movie to take home with you. It isn't surprising that the film was originally based on actors' improvisations, since it creates a universe of tremendously enjoyable characters and allows them plenty of room to roam, but has only the most predictable notion of plot and nothing whatever to say beyond be-yourself pieties. Quentin Tarantino has described "Pulp Fiction" as his fantasy version of a "Starsky and Hutch" episode; by that standard, "Good Will Hunting" is Damon and Affleck's version of an ABC After-School Special.
This is the almost archetypal story of an exceptionally gifted orphan whose humble origins and nightmarish childhood have both toughened and scarred him. In this instance, it's South Boston roughneck Will Hunting (Damon), an autodidact working-class math whiz who's sought after by think tanks, government spooks and gorgeous babes, but believes he'd rather have a few beers with the fellas. Of all the obstacles Will must overcome during his journey to manhood, none are as formidable as those within himself. Along the way he must acquire a surrogate father to replace his dead, absent and/or vicious one. He needs a man who will hug him, weep with him and, most importantly, challenge him. If you think I'm being sarcastic, go see the movie, in which Williams, playing a beefy, unkempt shrink who resembles his "Dead Poets Society" character run badly to seed, asks our hero such questions as, "Do you have a soulmate?" and "What are you passionate about?"
But even if this is a movie informed by TV, it's still a movie full of the kind of moments only Van Sant can give you. A young man sits and smokes in an unfurnished big-city bedroom that was once someone else's living room. A boy and girl go through a wrenching breakup, neither one quite understanding what's happening, under the harsh, half-fluorescent, half-incandescent lighting of a college dormitory. (That one left me shivering with the chill of memory.) During a therapeutic session, Van Sant allows the camera to wander directly behind Williams' head, blacking out half the screen for a few seconds. I don't know whether to call that brilliant or pretentious, but it conveys the unmistakable sense that you're actually in the room, and no other filmmaker this side of Ozu would have tried it.
In fact, you could argue that this New Age fairy tale provides especially fertile ground for Van Sant's work. He has never been much concerned with plot, and may be better off if he doesn't have to worry about writing a script. Does anyone understand the plot of "My Own Private Idaho"? Does anyone want to understand the plot of "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues"? Dialogue for Van Sant can be an obstruction or an afterthought, but it is never central. His movies are about their own transitory sensual moments; the stuff they're made of is color and light, rock 'n' roll, giggling fits, an almost neoclassical vision of physical beauty (especially in its male varieties), those haunting montages that try to capture the inexpressible.
Van Sant understands that he has a tiger by the tail in Damon ("John Grisham's The Rainmaker"), an intelligent actor possessed of a bemuscled Brando-esque physique and a feral Brando-esque sexuality, and the director doesn't overplay his hand. We see Will sitting silent and alone on an elevated train as Boston slides away beneath it, and something in his stillness tells us more about his bizarre isolation than any amount of verbal explication could. Will commutes daily from the Irish ghetto of "Southie" -- one of those picturesque white ethnic enclaves irresistible to filmmakers -- to a janitorial job at MIT, where he solves higher-mathematics equations on the sly until he's apprehended by the astonished Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard of "Breaking the Waves").
Although played by Skarsgard with wit and style, Lambeau is largely a device to pry Will free from his boozehound pals (headed by the ever-likable Affleck ("Chasing Amy"), complete with neo-pompadour and gold chains) and deliver him unto the Father Figure (Williams) and the Woman (Minnie Driver). This isn't one of Williams' showboat performances, which allows you to see how good a physical actor he really is. As Sean Maguire, a bereaved psychologist from Will's neighborhood, Williams inhabits space much differently than he does in comic roles, becoming a stolid, beet-faced Irishman nursing his private tragedy, with a sink full of dirty dishes and the hideously clashing wardrobe of a newly single middle-aged man. He's a delight to watch; unfortunately we also have to listen to him preaching the fatuous lines about love and maturity that Damon and Affleck have foisted upon him. Any real-world Will would have headed straight back to the bar.
My only regret about Driver -- who is dazzling as the upper-crust English Harvard student who falls for Will -- is that she arrives late and leaves early. Van Sant, as always, has rare insight into the amphetamine highs, staccato rhythms and nicotine lows of youthful love. You can feel him and the young couple pulled along in an effortless glide as long as Driver is on hand to present her dark mane, ironed to a high-intellectual gloss, and her freckled shoulders to the camera. Then she's gone, and we ease back into our seats, sighing as we wait for Will to absorb moral lessons from his mentor and head out into a new life, like Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield and Cinderella all rolled into one. Almost any viewer will enjoy "Good Will Hunting" moment by moment, but many will wake the next morning wondering why, with all that talent on hand, it amounts to so little in the end.