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Brains Into Mush

The new Gus Van Sant film Good Will Hunting is like an adolescent's fantasy of being tougher and smarter and more misunderstood than anybody else. It's also touchy-feely with a vengeance.

Is this the same director who made Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy? Those films had a fresh way of seeing. We may have been watching blasted, detached outcasts, but he brought us up close to them, almost erotically close. In those films and portions of My Own Private Idaho, he managed to turn the blank cool of his hustlers and wayfarers into something lyric and impassioned.

Good Will Hunting, starring Matt Damon and Robin Williams, is a commercial for the restorative power of love. It's shaggy and "tender": a hard sell masquerading as a soft sell. And what's being sold are recycled goods. Instead of showing us new ways to feel, Van Sant plays up all the old, dull ways. He embraces mawkishness as if it were manna.

At least Van Sant didn't write the script. That dubious distinction belongs to Damon and Ben Affleck, who has a supporting role. Damon plays Will Hunting, a 21-year-old South Boston tough who works as a janitor at M.I.T. Will likes to joyride and booze it up with his Southie buddies. He's perpetually pumped, with a hefty rap sheet--assault, grand-theft auto, the works.

He's also--and here's the rub--a super-genius. Orphaned, Will spent his youth in and out of foster homes and never attended college. And yet his mind is so wizardly that he can reduce a smartypants Harvard student to jelly. Will's genius exists as a way to one-up people who look down on him. When a famous M.I.T. math professor, Dr. Lambeau (Stellan SkarsgŒrd), challenges his students to solve a real brain-cracker, Will takes one look at the classroom chalkboard after hours and writes in the solution--anonymously.

Lambeau tracks Will down in police custody. (He's in jail because he pulverized a snooty guy he recognized from kindergarten.) In awe of this Einstein-in-the-rough, Lambeau agrees to act as Will's mentor in exchange for the police dropping the assault rap. As part of the deal, he must also secure psychological counseling for Will. After a series of comically bad matches, the boy is placed with Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), a community-college therapist and old classmate of Lambeau's who, like Will, has an Irish, South Boston pedigree.

This is where the film makes a beeline for Hokumsville. To begin with, Sean and Lambeau are not just friends but uneasy rivals: While Lambeau went after academic hosannas, Sean disdained glory and ambition and lived a blissful wedded life--until his wife's death two years ago. With his rumply jackets and hair sprouting everywhere, Sean is a fuzzball in mourning. He may be brilliant, but he's burnt out by loneliness. And just in case we don't register what a holy man he is, we also discover for good measure that he was a) a combat soldier in Vietnam, b) an abused child, and c) a Red Sox fanatic.

Sean is the perfect therapist for Will, because both are hurting inside. At least that's what we're supposed to think. While Lambeau is exhorting Will to realize his stratospheric potential, Sean, once he breaks through the boy's barriers, counsels him to "do what's in your heart." Guess who wins?

Good Will Hunting--even the title is irritatingly touchy-feely--offers itself up as a film about a genius who needs to allow himself to be vulnerable. He's isolated by his outcast upbringing and, presumably, by his terrific intelligence. But the filmmakers aren't really interested in what Will is really like. They set him up as a prodigy only to bring him down to normalcy. Their point is this: Matters of the heart trump matters of the mind. Will may be a brain, but it turns out he's as angry and confused as us dullards. The film seems designed to cajole audiences into embracing their averageness. It's saying: "Will is a genius, but he needs love just like the rest of us."

Most Hollywood movies about prodigies exist on this same dumbed-down plane--the most recent offenders being Searching for Bobby Fischer and Jodie Foster's Little Man Tate. What you rarely get in these movies is any sense of the specialness that comes with genius. In popular culture, it's impolite to elevate genius; it smacks of--gasp--elitism. But why should we be asked to identify with geniuses only insofar as they resemble ourselves? Isn't this just narcissism passing itself off as humility?

In Good Will Hunting, there are at least four people trying to connect with Will: Besides Lambeau and Sean, there's Will's best buddy Chuckie (Affleck), who wants Will to break free of South Boston and use his smarts to make a better life for himself, and Skylar (Minnie Driver), a wealthy Harvard pre-med student he falls in love with and who, of course, loves him for "himself."

But the voice we are most meant to heed is Sean's. It is he who challenges Lambeau's dreams of glory for the boy by retaliating with, "Maybe he doesn't want to do what you want." Lambeau is like Salieri in Amadeus in reverse: He is embittered and belittled by Will's genius but wants it to flourish. And Sean is like the psychiatrist in Equus in reverse: He doesn't envy the boy's gifts; he envies Will's capacity to blast through his defenses and feel like ordinary folk. Sean, of course, also reaps wisdom from Will: Like his patient, he learns to feel again.

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