After being nominated three times, Robin Williams finally won an Oscar for his performance as Dr. Sean McGuire in 1997’s Good Will Hunting. The first time I ever watched Good Will Hunting, I was 16 years old and I loved it. 12 years later, I rewatched it for this review and, oddly enough, I did not love it. In fact, I barely even liked it. However, one thing that I did better appreciate the second time around was the performance of Robin Williams.
Good Will Hunting was, of course, written by its two stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. It tells the story of Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a self-taught math genius who, as a result of being abused as a child, is full of anger and refuses to allow anyone to get close to him. His only true friend is Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), a construction worker. Will works as a janitor at MIT and, when he’s caught secretly solving a complex math problem, he’s taken under the wing of Prof. Gerard Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard). While Will pursues a volatile romance with a med student named Skylar (Minnie Driver, who is good in an underwritten role), Lambeau arranges for Will to become a patient of psychologist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams). The recently widowed Sean helps Will to come to terms with his abusive childhood and deal with his anger issues. When Skylar tells Will that she’s moving to California, Will is forced to decide whether to follow her or to just push her away like he does with everyone else.
I can still remember that the first time I ever saw Good Will Hunting, I had such a crush on Will Hunting. After all, he looked like Matt Damon. He was smart but he could still stand up for himself. He was a jerk but that was just because he needed the right girl in his life. When he finally talked about being abused by his foster father, my heart broke for him and I just wanted to be there for him while he cried. When he drove off to see Skylar in that beat-up car of his, I thought it was such a romantic moment. Like, seriously — Oh. My. God.
That was the first time I saw the movie.
However, when I recently rewatched the film for this review, I had a totally different reaction to Will Hunting. Maybe it’s because I’m older now and I’ve had to do deal with real-life versions of the character but this time, I actually found myself very much not charmed by Will Hunting and his condescending verbosity. Whereas originally it seemed like he pushed the away the world as a defensive mechanism, it now seemed like Will was basically just a sociopath. People in both the audience and the movie assumed that, because he was so smart, there had to be something more to Will than just bitter negativity but actually, there was less. And even Will’s intelligence seemed to be more the result of the fact that director Gus Van Sant and screenwriters Damon and Affleck were kind enough to surround Will with less-than-articulate characters to humiliate. It’s easy to be the smartest person in the room when you’re surrounded by strawmen. I got the feeling that we were supposed to impressed because Will cites Howard Zinn at one point but, really, Howard Zinn is pretty much the historian of choice for phony intellectuals everywhere.
(In the interest of fairness, I guess I should admit that I may be biased because I once dated a phony intellectual who was always citing Howard Zinn, despite having not read anything that Zinn had ever written. Don’t get me wrong. He owned a copy of A People’s History of the United States and he always made sure it was sitting somewhere where visitors could see it but he had never actually opened it. I imagine he has since moved on to Thomas Piketty.)
Instead, I found myself reacting far more positively to the character of Chuckie Sullivan. Chuckie may not have been a genius but at least he was capable of holding down a job, actually cared about his friends, and was capable of communicating with people without trying to destroy their self-esteem. If I had been Skylar, I would have dumped Will and spent my last few months in Boston enjoying the working class pleasures of Chuckie Sullivan.
But here’s the thing — the main reason that we believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there is good inside of Will Hunting is because Sean Maguire tells us that there is. As I rewatched Good Will Hunting, I was surprised by just how good Robin Williams’s performance really was. The compassionate psychologist has become such a stock character that there’s something truly enjoyable about watching an actor manage to find nuance and individuality in the familiar role. Sean is such a kind and likable character (and Robin Williams gives such an empathetic performance) that we’re willing to give Will the benefit of the doubt as long as he is. In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams once again had the beard that gave him gravitas in Awakenings. But he also had the saddest eyes. It’s the eyes that you remember as you watch the film because it’s those eyes that tell us that Sean has had to overcome the type of pain that Will Hunting will never be capable of understanding.
It’s those eyes, more than anything, that convince us that there might be some good in Will Hunting.