Tina Brown on her former business partner Harvey Weinstein:
I often used to wonder if the physical dissonance between his personal grossness and his artistic sensibility — which was genuine — made him crazy.
I'll be talking about Weinstein's "personal grossness" with Judge Jeanine later this evening on Fox News, at 9pm Eastern/6pm Pacific. But our Saturday movie feature is generally more preoccupied with "artistic sensibility", so we might as well feature an old Weinstein hit, as there aren't going to be any new ones. Obviously, nobody's going to be putting "The Weinstein Company presents..." on anything from now on. But it's not just the name: Without the pot-plant masturbator, there is no company. Indeed, even without his ejection from it, the long-term prognosis wasn't good for TWC: as Weinstein's employment contract suggests, minding Harvey's pants was becoming as important as minding the store. As a producer, his best days were behind him.
So let's go back a couple of decades to when Weinstein had, so to speak, a surer touch, and plucked an excellent script by two new guys who stuck with him like brothers until a couple of days ago. Around the time this film came out in 1998, 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 studio exec 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 part of it all the way through," as Cole Porter summed up one honcho's approach.
The writers of Good Will Hunting are, in fact, actors — 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:
Σ = (y-¿) x zzz*/7 (@§ç) [$$$$]
(I quote from memory)
Actually, that one isn't too difficult, as it represents the precise formula for late Nineties Weinstein Oscar bait, where zzz = upscale Brit source material, ¿ = Gwyneth Paltrow's breasts and § =the differential between a film directed by Quentin Tarantino and a film with a cameo by Quentin Tarantino. The line represents the line that sensitive artistic executives know not to cross, and the a=actress and ¶=Harvey's head peeking out from the bathroom door.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. Good Will Hunting's 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 was 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 — 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 — South Boston — 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."
(Two decades 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: both are men who, in opposite ways, are 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 Harvey Weinstein's sole demand before he would agree to make 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.
At the Oscars that year, Billy Crystal serenaded Weinstein's young writers to the tune of "Night and Day":
Ben and Matt
You are the ones
Your script was tight and
Dammit, so are your buns.
Two decades on, Ben and Matt are powerhouses in Hollywood. Ben has been accused of "inappropriate behavior" by at least three women, and Matt was calling New York Times reporters to get them to back off on Weinstein sex stories. Minnie Driver? Well, she's just one of a remarkable number of once promising actresses in Weinstein hits whose subsequent career never quite took off - like Rosanna Arquette and Mira Sorvino and Rose McGowan. Hmm.
~If you disagree with Mark's movie columns and you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club, then feel free to have at it in the comments. Club membership isn't for everybody, but it helps keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. If you're in the mood for less visual storytelling on a Saturday night, Mark will be back later this evening with the second episode of our new Tale for Our Time, Anthony Hope's classic adventure The Prisoner of Zenda. And, if you're interested less in Harvey Weinstein's movies than in his off-screen activities, Steyn will be discussing Weinstein's legal woes on one of his favorite TV shows, "Justice with Judge Jeanine", live across America later this evening, Saturday, at 9pm Eastern/6pm Pacific.