Before watching the movie:
This movie is one I’ve been only vaguely aware of. I don’t know much more about the plot than “brilliant janitor”, and until I saw it categorized, I wasn’t fully sure it was a drama (I was just going by the rule I think was proposed by Family Guy: if Robin Williams is wearing a beard, he thinks it’s a serious role.
This has been sitting around my digital shelf for a while, but its pending expiration has pushed me to go ahead with it. Also it’s been on sale where I work for weeks, whispering to me.
After watching the movie:
Will Hunting, 20-year old janitor at MIT, solves a fantastically difficult mathematical equation on a hallway chalkboard (do those exist in real life?) as easily as most people would write their own name. When the professor who put it up for his students to attempt to solve finds he was the one who solved it, he dedicates himself to making sure Will has the opportunity to live up to his potential just before Will gets sent to prison. Professor Lambeau negotiates Will’s release on the conditions that he regularly do math consultations with him and that he take a weekly therapy session to curb his tendency to end up on the wrong side of the law. Will insists he doesn’t need therapy and makes every psychologist give up on him, until Lambeau gets his old college classmate Sean Maguire, who’s tenacious and brilliant, if not in the best position he could have ended up in, teaching at a community college. Maguire’s patient, caring, but not sugar-coated approach to helping Will starts to get results, but not the results Lambeau is intent on seeing.
For me, Will’s rough, blue-collar life with his friends was the part I least wanted to see, and of course that’s where the movie had to start. He may have solved the first math problem in the first five minutes, but the movie didn’t start for me, didn’t engage me in the character, until the scene in the bar where he humiliates the bullying history major by pointing out that he wasn’t making any original arguments. It’s one thing to just say “this math problem is so complex that if you can solve it, you’re a genius”, and another to turn 400-level history into an intellectual bar fight. It also helped that that scene introduced Skylar. Will dating Skylar was a narrative thread that kept me engaged in the movie as a whole until Sean was introduced almost halfway through the story.
I’m not as much of a Robin Williams fan as I was when I was a child, but I was really watching the movie for him. Sure, I like him for his comedy, and this is a serious role, but I liked Jakob the Liar too. In this movie, he’s not here to be funny, but he’s still the best part. As I’m maturing and slowing down, I find I appreciate more when Williams slows down and doesn’t make everything a joke. He’s got plenty of wit here, but he’s not clowning. He’s just being wise and human, and occasionally cracking wise.
I wish the movie gave me a better idea of what Will’s brilliance is in. We see him breezing through math, organic chemistry, history, art criticism, and psychology, giving the impression that he’s proficient at everything mental, but it turns out that a lot of that is from voracious reading and an exact memory. However, it’s not all memorization, because he wows experts in everything he touches, so I’m left feeling that it’s vaguely written. I’m not sure how much of that is the story’s limits and how much is my own limits of suspension of disbelief. I just don’t have much experience with polymaths.
Watch this movie: for the familiar feel-good story of a scarred kid coming out of his shell with the help of a mentor.
Don’t watch this movie: for many surprises.