The title of this film tells it all. It dispenses a great deal of good will and calls to mind a host of other dramas from “Forrest Gump” to “Awakenings” that dealt with difficult psychological or physiological problems building to an emotional payoff. The film also has a bit of the Cinderella story about it, the script being the work of two aspiring actors, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who have also written themselves star-making roles. It doesn’t hurt that Damon and Affleck acquitted themselves well as actors elsewhere this year, in “The Rainmaker” and “Chasing Amy,” respectively.
Underdogs are always dear to Academy voters. And since that’s an increasingly rare phenomenon these days, members may find themselves scrawling down this film’s name in sufficient numbers on their preliminary ballots to ensure a best picture nomination. Director Gus Van Sant is held in high esteem by his peers for such independent hits as “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho” as well as “To Die For.” This would be a propitious time to recognize him for a film with mainstream appeal.
In the best actor category, Oscar might shine on Damon and possibly Robin Williams, who has the juicy psychiatrist’s role that reminds one of his work in “Awakenings” and “Dead Poets Society.” He received a nomination for the latter. With three nominations already under his belt (the others were for “The Fisher King” and “Good Morning Vietnam”), and a role that is far from his usual comedic work, Williams could find himself in the running again this year.
Since Damon’s performance here is much more difficult and emotionally layered than his work in “The Rainmaker,” his fellow thesps are more likely to remember it come balloting time.
In the supporting categories, Affleck certainly has a shot as Will Hunting’s best friend Chuckie. Stellan Skarsgard brings conviction to the thankless role of Will’s patron, managing to remain likable even when the audience should hate him. Skarsgard was memorable in last year’s “Breaking the Waves” and also surfaces in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.”
As the object of Will’s affection, Minnie Driver, who first impressed in “Circle of Friends” and more recently with “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “Big Night” and “Sleepers,” has an outside chance as supporting actress.
Damon and Affleck could score for their original screenplay which has brought them a great deal of attention within the industry. Jean-Yves Escoffier’s moody cinematography, however, may be overlooked in favor of more flashy outings.
Classic Oscar credentials: 3 (Williams is A-list thesp)
Cause celebre: 7 (Mental health always hot Hollywood concern)
Vanity element: 0
The David vs. Goliath syndrome: 8 (Miramax trying anti-hype hype)
The feel-good movie of the year factor: 9 (Empower your insanity)
The unavoidable, inexorable buzz pic: 8 (Hollywood Cinderella tale)
Idiot savants have more fun: 9 (Troubled genius janitor against odds)
Timing is everything: 9 (Late innings rally)
O.Q. total: 53