Mark at the Movies
We had many requests for a Robin Williams pic for our weekend movie feature, but I have to confess I was never the biggest fan of his. I always found his comedy a little tiring to watch, and his serious acting a little too self-conscious. With Mrs Doubtfire I enjoyed seeing a transvestite Williams play soccer, vacuum to Aerosmith, talk dirty to his ex-wife's new beau, Pierce Brosnan, and commiserate with Mr Brosnan at how the chill waters of the swimming pool have shrunk his poor wee willy. It's when the latex comes off and Williams has to be the rejected husband that the down-turned mouth, whimpering voice, sad eyes and pleading brows seem gruesomely overdone, as if he'd been intending to play not a Scottish nanny but Lassie in the one where she's stuck down a coalmine and has to tell her master to go ahead and leave her to die. A couple of years later, Jack, in which he played a ten-year-old boy trapped in a prematurely aging body, seemed both absurdly contrived and eerily near the truth.
Nevertheless, millions of people around the world adore Robin Williams, and that in itself should command a measure of respect. And once in a while he'd turn up in a film I liked regardless of his performance. So here's one such - from 1998, Good Will Hunting:
Around the time this film came out, there was a radio commercial for some sort of amazing do-it-yourself "literacy" course which began: "How would you like to read an entire novel in your lunch hour?" Personally, I can think of few things worse - and certainly few less rewarding ways to read a novel. Nevertheless, in Good Will Hunting, the eponymous Will, a genius, demonstrates said genius by memorizing a book simply by turning the pages and regurgitating a lot of information at extremely fast speed. This is a very Hollywood idea of genius: there isn't a producer in town who wouldn't love a kid in the outer office who could read an entire novel over lunch and then pitch it in eight seconds. No more "I just read half of it all the way through," as Louis B Mayer is said to have told a writer.
The writers of Good Will Hunting are, in fact, actors â€” Matt Damon, who back in 1998 was best known for The Rainmaker, and Ben Affleck, who'd turned in a very dreary performance in the boy-meets-lesbian romance Chasing Amy. That said, they had their own peculiar genius: The script is said to have started out as an action thriller about a race against time to avert mass destruction. Then, at Rob Reiner's suggestion, the boys converted it into an all-talk-and-no-action touchy-feely cockle-warmer about male bonding. The final version trembles on the brink of a dysfunction-of- the-week TV movie but never quite dives in, thanks mainly to Gus Van Sant's direction and two oral-sex jokes.
Will, played by Matt, is now a janitor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, loitering with his mop and pail by the blackboard and anonymously solving the most complicated mathematical theorems, like:
Î£ = (y-Â¿) x zzz*/7 (@Â§Ã§) [$$$$]
(I quote from memory)
Actually, that one isn't too difficult, as it represents the precise formula for a late Nineties Hollywood flop, where zzz = Kevin Costner, Â¿ = Demi Moore's breast implants and Â§ =the differential between a film directed by Quentin Tarantino and a film with a cameo by Quentin Tarantino. Good Will Hunting avoids most of those pitfalls, but not quite all. Its trump card is Mr Damon, who struts through the film with the cockiness of a good-looking serial killer. He's not very plausible as a genius, but then he's not very plausible as a janitor either, so it all evens out. What he has is a breezy intensity and the same kind of bantam rooster quality as the young Cagney, albeit gussied up and airbrushed, as is the Nineties' wont. With the exception of his three minutes singing "Scottie Doesn't Know" in Eurotrip, this remains his greatest screen performance.
As for Will himself, he's merely the umpteenth variation on Forrest Gump â€” this time an asshole savant: for all his facility with physics and history, he'd rather drink beer, beat guys to a bloody pulp and say 'f**k' a lot. The film is unusually strong in these scenes. It doesn't sentimentalize the lads as poets in the raw, held back only by the iniquities of class: Chuckie (Affleck) and Will's other pals from Southie â€” South Boston â€” are shown as amiable yobs, perfectly content within their shrunken horizons. The loathing that the college maintenance staff feel for the professors is also well done, and there's a sharp scene where Will and a Harvard boy spar over Minnie Driver:
"You just paid $150,000 for an education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the library."
"True, but at the end of it I'll have a degree and you'll be serving my kids fries in the drive-thru on the way to our ski vacation."
(A decade and a half on, a 150-grand degree is no obstacle to a rewarding career at the drive-thru window.)
The forces of higher education are represented by Stellen Skarsgard as an MIT professor looking for his ticket to the top. It would have been interesting to see the film explore his character's relationship with Will â€” both men, in opposite ways, frustrated by the size of their brains. Instead, Skarsgard is there essentially to introduce Will to a shrink pal of his. The shrink is played by Robin Williams. Even worse, it's Robin Williams in that beard he keeps in the drawer and only brings out for serious roles.
The beard is working overtime here: Williams' character is a Vietnam vet, child-abuse survivor, recent widower and community college loser, due to the fact that his career stalled while his late wife spent 18 of their 20 years together on her death bed. In Deconstructing Harry, the Woody Allen film released around the same time, Williams had a small role as an actor who goes out of focus - literally: whenever the camera tries to film him, he's all fuzzy and blurred. On the evidence of Good Will Hunting, it was something of a recurring problem for Williams: his eyes are permanently fuzzy and blurry, as if he's on the brink of tears. Apparently, Mister Blurry's participation was Miramax's sole condition for making the film. That's a shame, because he's at odds with an otherwise strong cast. Self-pity is a difficult quality to sell: There's a neediness in Williams' performance here, which is what ties his serious roles to the manic comedy. All performers have that to one degree or another, but the trick of acting is to conceal it. Still and all, a fine, watchable film.
from Mark at the Movies, August 16, 2014
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