Good Will Hunting film review

August 27, 2014

(I originally published this film review of “Good Will Hunting” in the Australian Jewish News in early 1998.  I am reprinting it in honour of the recent passing of Robin Williams.)

Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon
Starring Robin Williams, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgard and Minnie Driver

What happens when two former Cambridge, Massachusetts acting classmates decide to collaborate on a script about their hometown of Boston? The result is “Good Will Hunting”, a remarkable first script by up and coming actors Matt Damon (“The Rainmaker”) and Ben Affleck (“Chasing Amy”). But there is more. Damon and Affleck also star in the film in the parts they conceived for themselves.

Damon plays Will Hunting, a 20 year old orphan who has suffered through years of abuse and neglect in a series of foster homes. Will is tough, cocky and full of rage, but also has one special characteristic: he is a total genius, completely self-taught, with a photographic memory and the capacity to compete with top international mathematicians and scientists. Affleck plays Will’s best friend Chuckie, wise enough to recognise his friend’s genius, but unlikely to rise out of their working class Irish South Boston surrounds.

Will is brought to the attention of prize-winning Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard, recently in “Amistad”) after Will solved a famous theorem during his evening rounds as a cleaner at MIT. After Will has been arrested for assault, Lambeau convinces the judge to let Will out of jail under the condition that he work with MIT mathematicians and undergo weekly counselling. Lambeau is determined that Will fulfill his intellectual potential, and chooses his old friend psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a teacher at Bunker Hill Community College, for Will’s therapy. Maguire and Lambeau have a long history, and it turns out that Sean also has a few hurts of his own to deal with.

From this interesting set-up, director Gus Van Sant (“Drugstore Cowboy”, “To Die For”) is able to develop a deeply entertaining story which works on many levels. At its most basic, this is a tale about breaking through emotional barriers and allowing oneself to care, at the risk of being hurt. You live life by experience, we are told. Yes, we have heard this before, but these simple truths are made more meaningful by Will’s romance with English heiress (and fellow orphan) Skylar (Minnie Driver), a Harvard student. Driver (“Circle of Friends”, “Grosse Point Blank”) has never been more luminous. But “Good Will Hunting” achieves something extra special through its delicate but straightforward approach to American social class, contrasting the uneducated South Boston youngsters with the elite Harvard and MIT students across town, cleverly playing on the iconography of American academia. (Damon, by the way, studied at Harvard: it takes one to know one.)

The result is a warm, caring, convincing and at times deeply affecting film, easily the best I have ever seen set in Boston, as it recognises the social geography of that fascinating city. Let me tell you how good this film is: If I first saw this film at age 21, it would have probably become one of my favourites of all time. Although I am well past 21, I can still see in it universal truths about finding identity and love; I was captivated.


Jakob the Liar film review

August 27, 2014

I originally published this film review of “Jakob the Liar” in the Australian Jewish News on November 19, 1999.  I am re-printing it in honour of Robin Williams, who sadly left us last week.

*****

Directed by Peter Kassovitz
Written by Peter Kassovitz and Didier Decoin
Starring Robin Williams, Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Liev Schreiber and Mathieu Kassovitz

I desperately wanted to like “Jakob the Liar”, the new feature film about the Holocaust. It is the biggest budget “Jewish” film of the year (1999). I have been a fan of Robin Williams for some time. It is also directed (and co-written) Peter Kassovitz, a Budapest-born, Paris-based Jewish film director who survived the war hidden by a Catholic family. (Miraculously, both of his parents survived the camps.) Kassovitz has done a number of French films, including “Stirn and Stern”, a comedy about a Jewish family and an anti-Semite during the Nazi occupation of France. And he is the father of Mathieu, the young actor/director, who has made two of the most interesting French Jewish films in recent years – “Hate” (“La Haine”) and “Café Au Lait”, who appears in a minor role in “Jakob”.

“Jakob the Liar” has a wonderful pedigree: it is based on a semi-autobiographical book by the late Jurek Becker, has an all-star cast, has production design by Australian Luciana Arrighi (“Howard’s End”, “My Brilliant Career”) and its heart is in the right place. It was also shot on location in Budapest and Poland.

The story takes place in a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, whose inhabitants have been depleted by transports, disease, degradation and hunger. Jakob Heym (Robin Williams) had previously owned a (now closed) café, and by accident overhears a forbidden radio news bulletin that indicates that the Soviets are beating the Germans and approaching. When he tells a couple of friends – mostly as a way of discouraging one from committing suicide, now an epidemic in the ghetto – the rumour soon spreads that Jakob owns a forbidden radio. So Jakob is caught in a bind: he is an instrument of hope in a situation which is almost totally hopeless, but his words inspire power, at times dangerously so.

Aside from Williams, the cast includes Alan Arkin as theatrical actor Frankfurter, Bob Balaban (“Deconstructing Harry”) as Kowalski the barber, Armin-Mueller Stahl as Kirschbaum the doctor, Liev Schreiber as Mischa – a young boxer formerly managed by Jakob and now in love with Frankfurter’s daughter, Rosa, played by Nina Siemaszko. This is a cast loaded with significance. German-born Mueller-Stahl has often played both Jews (“Shine”, “Avalon”) as well as Nazis and tormentors (“Colonel Redl”, “Angry Harvest”). Schreiber gave a stellar performance as a Jewish husband in the just-released “A Walk on the Moon”. And Nina Siemaszko’s late father – like book author Becker – survived the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

In feel and approach, “Jakob the Liar” fits somewhere between “Life is Beautiful” and “Schindler’s List”, two films with which it will inevitably be compared. But it lacks the fable-like quality which gave “Life is Beautiful” such resonance, and misses the emotionally mythical film-making which Spielberg brought to “Schindler”. It is hard to pin down where “Jakob the Liar” misses out. Robin Williams is a notoriously difficult actor to direct, and the role of Jakob Heym (“life”?) the reluctant hero never quite fits him. It also takes quite a bit of time for the film to get moving.

There are scenes in “Jakob the Liar” of unspeakable sadness and brutality, and this is certainly not a film for the faint-hearted. It is also undeniably moving in parts, for the story it tells is ultimately one of Jewish survival through crushing adversity. And the final scenes should bring tears to everyone. The characters are full of depth and contain the sort of ambiguities that Hollywood rarely allows. Although everyone speaks English, the European sensibility is high. But for me “Jakob the Liar” never reached the plateau of creating a universal story on a “larger than life” canvas, and emotionally did not grip me until the very end – much too long of a wait.