Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
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John Grisham's The Rainmaker
How I Spent My Summer Vacation
RESOLVED: That the use of a therapist, psychiatrist, psychologist, or any other variety of mental health practitioner, licensed or unlicensed, as a major character in a fictional motion picture should be prohibited by law.
In case you haven't noticed yet, movies themselves, like any other art form, are profoundly therapeutic; I truly believe that there are people who would benefit as much from a single viewing of The Sweet Hereafter as from a year spent twice weekly on the couch. Dramatizing therapy, therefore, is at best redundant, and Good Will Hunting, which features Robin Williams as a caring but troubled shrink struggling to break through the emotional walls erected by slumming genius Matt Damon, is more or less doomed from the get-go. Nothing is less interesting dramatically than watching people overtly work out their hangups, which is one of the many reasons that Atom Egoyan's Exotica, in which the nature of Bruce Greenwood and Mia Kirshner's obsessive ritual is shrouded in mystery, is about a thousand times more affecting and cathartic than Robert Redford's thematically similar Ordinary People, with Judd Hirsch's crusty, sweater-clad psychoshaman browbeating Timothy Hutton out of his repression. Ordinary People won several Oscars, though (and in the year of Raging Bull, no less), while Exotica struggled to a $5 million North American gross, so I suspect that Good Will Hunting is gonna be a smash -- this in spite of a title that has everybody I know utterly nonplussed.
So let me clear that up first: Will Hunting is the name of the 20-year-old prodigy played by Damon, 1997's It Boy. (He also stars in John Grisham's The Rainmaker, which I eviscerate below.) An orphan with a troubled past and a quick temper, he works as a janitor at M.I.T., even though he's exponentially smarter than any of the kids taking advanced mathematics there -- or any of the adults teaching it, for that matter. One of those adults, a prize-winning instructor played by Stellan Skarsgaard (Breaking the Waves), discovers his gift and bails him out of jail following one of his frequent assault charges; in return, he asks that Will agree to work with him on cutting-edge math theory and regularly see a psychiatrist. After a few false starts (most memorably, a tearful semi-hypnotic regression metamorphoses unexpectedly into an impromptu performance of the insipid '70s hit "Afternoon Delight"), the prof turns to his former college roommate, Sean McGuire (Williams), whose once-promising career has stalled following his wife's death from cancer. Cue many, many, many scenes of crusty, sweater-clad Sean gradually coaxing wounded Will out of his shell, while Will, in turn, uses his keen perception (in addition to his unparalleled skill in mathematics, he seems to be an expert on history, psychology, art criticism, and every other subject under the sun) to force Sean to question a few of his own fundamental assumptions.
There's a germ of an interesting idea here, however woefully underdeveloped: Will Hunting possesses one of the world's most brilliant minds, but he has little or no interest in applying it, preferring to spend his time hangin' with his buddies in South Boston and performing manual labor for slave wages. The obvious question is Why, but -- as usual in this crippled genre -- what ought to be the film's subtext is laboriously spelled out for us. It has to be, since the patient has to hear it in order to come to terms with his dilemma, and so we're treated to such painfully pointed dialogue as:
WILL: She's perfect right now, and I don't want to ruin that. SEAN: Maybe you're perfect right now. Maybe you don't want to ruin that.
That exchange is featured in the film's trailer, and upon first hearing it (as well as other gems like "Unless you want to talk about you -- or are you terrified of what you might say?") I crossed Good Will Hunting off of my mental to-see list...until I remembered that it had been directed, however improbably, by Gus Van Sant, he of such unconventional pictures as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Responding to a Time Out poll a couple of years back, in which various notable directors were asked which ten films they considered to be the greatest of all time, Van Sant chose Kids for numbers 1-7 inclusive. Surely, I thought, there must be more to this than meets the eye. It's a Miramax film -- perhaps the trailer is intentionally misleading. Perhaps it's a satire of the traditional psychotherapy drama. Perhaps I'd simply hallucinated all of those dreadful clunkers ("I'd give anything to have what you've got").
Nope. Oh, there's a bit of welcome cynicism here and there; I laughed aloud when Will, taking a seat in Sean's office, energetically announced "Let's go, I'm pumped. Let's let the healing begin!" And what looked at first like a nauseatingly picturesque scene set on a lakeside park bench was nicely undercut by Will's astute observation that he and Sean appeared to have stumbled into a Taster's Choice ad. But those few exceptions aside, Good Will Hunting is every bit as treacly and formulaic as it looks, and apart from the appearance of his name in the opening titles, there's nothing about the film that betrays Van Sant's presence behind the lens, nor anything about the project that required his idiosyncratic sensibility. Anybody could have directed this movie in the thoroughly professional, purely functional style Van Sant employs; I can only assume that he smelled a commercial hit, and felt that he needed a successful picture on his résumé right about now. Who am I to judge him?
On the other hand, I feel quite free to judge the film's conventional, contrived screenplay, which was co-written by Damon and his longtime pal Ben Affleck (Holden in Chasing Amy; here he plays the relatively small role of Will's best friend, Chuckie), well before they both simultaneously hit the big time as actors. Not only have they penned a freakin' therapy movie, they've written it in the overdetermined, anti-spontaneous style that I associate with those hideous computer programs designed to "enhance" your screenplay by making it conform to a pointless set of "rules." It's a naturalistic, performance-driven movie that features all of the mechanical setups and payoffs of a classic farce, only without the jokes; if somebody tells what is ostensibly a digressive anecdote, rest assured that an poignant echo is forthcoming. Every key scene and moment is laboriously telegraphed or foreshadowed, and in the lengthy denouement -- the final reel feels like it's never gonna end -- Damon and Affleck plant a reference to something said or seen earlier in the film about every minute and a half. It's exasperating as hell, and exactly the kind of misguided, well-intentioned mistake that amateurs tend to make when attempting to be clever. (I speak from personal experience.)
So I hated this movie, yes? Incredibly, no; in fact, I very nearly gave it a mild three-star recommendation, and I've stressed its flaws, as I'm wont to do, mostly because it strikes me as the kind of movie that'll be vastly overrated by others. Whenever deep psychological traumas are being probed, or the narrative dominos are falling just so, it's a chore to watch, but when it's content merely to loiter with its protagonist and his chums, observing, it's a delight -- the best scenes in Good Will Hunting are only tangentially related to the plot, and share an easy, relaxed tone that's in sharp contrast to the strained quality that permeates everything else. Will falls for a Harvard medical student played by Minnie Driver, and though their relationship eventually becomes just another monotonous cog in the machine, their courtship is great fun, even if it pales in comparison to Driver's expert rapport with John Cusack in this spring's Grosse Pointe Blank. Damon and Affleck's real-life camaraderie, meanwhile, is very apparent in their scenes together, and there are also a couple of peripheral friends, played by actors I'd never seen before (one of whom, hmm, is also named Affleck), who seem to be inhabiting a different (better) movie, so completely unaware are they of the gears in motion elsewhere. And while the film is badly overwritten, that kind of studiousness is not without its pleasures: urged by his M.I.T. mentor to interview for a code-breaking job with the NSA, Will explains why he's not interested in the position in an extended, breathless monologue that's as politically shrewd as it is breathtakingly hilarious. (I'm still not sold on Damon as a great actor, but he deserves some kind of special Oscar for breath control.) More of that kind of lunatic contrivance would be just fine. Tell me less about your mother.
Based on real events (though there's some controversy concerning whether Berendt's book should be classified as fiction or non-fiction), Midnight is nominally about a Town and Country reporter, John Kelso (John Cusack), who arrives in Savannah, Georgia to write a 500-word piece on an annual party thrown by nouveau-riche slickster Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). The night of the party, Williams kills his rough-trade lover (Jude Law, in a role that couldn't possibly be less like the one he played in Gattaca), allegedly in self-defense, and Kelso subsequently decides to stick around and write a book about the incident, agreeing to turn over any new information that he digs up to Williams' defense team in exchange for William's cooperation with his project. The town, as it turns out, is less appalled by the idea that their favorite son may have killed a man in cold blood than by the fact that his ensuing trial will necessarily out him, as they'd all been merrily pretending that they didn't know that he was gay. Southern hospitality at its finest.
In Berendt's book, all of this is apparently but a handful of tiles in a colorful mosaic portrait of Savannah eccentricity. Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock manage to include a few of the goofier anecdotes -- a man who walks an invisible dog; a guy with pet horseflies attached to his clothes by tiny threads -- but these seem like afterthoughts, and so the wackiness feels forced and phony. (Granted, I don't particularly enjoy this kind of whimsy in any context.) And because Hollywood movies are invariably plot-driven, the events surrounding the murder completely dominate the film...to the film's detriment, because the real-life Williams saga, even in this streamlined version (four trials have wisely been condensed into one, etc.), isn't terribly involving. So much screen time is devoted to the trial that it's impossible not to assume that some stunning revelation about the murder is forthcoming, but the twist, when it finally arrives, is anticlimactically ambiguous; I guess we're supposed to conclude that the truth is unknowable, but the movie doesn't actually explore this idea in any memorable way -- Rashomon this ain't.
Much more mysterious, ultimately, is Kelso's intermittent romance with a local florist played by Eastwood's daughter Alison -- though the mystery is what the hell it's doing in the movie at all, since a) it isn't in the book, b) it has no relation to the narrative proper and no thematic resonance whatsoever, and c) it's so bland and perfunctory that it makes the puppy-love-stricken teens in 1960's beach pictures look like Sid and Nancy. At first I cynically assumed that Clint was just trying to help his little girl break into the biz, but after further reflection I'm inclined instead to cynically assume that somebody somewhere thought "hmm, the gay element may turn off middle America, so let's at least try to compensate for all the homo stuff by letting our protagonist hook up with some cute chick." Either way, every minute wasted on Kelso's snooze of a relationship with whatsherhead is a minute in which the truly interesting aspect of the Williams story -- the hypocritical behavior of the folks who had loved him so long as he remained in the closet -- is blithely ignored.
What remains is the acting, which is mostly exceptional. Cusack, playing a non-character vaguely based on Berendt, is obliged to coast on his charm, but Spacey fairly exudes menacing courtesy, and the Lady Chablis, a female impersonator who plays herself, is a snippy riot. Best of all is Australian legend Jack Thompson ('Breaker' Morant), who goes to town with the flamboyant role of Williams' good ol' boy attorney, Sonny Seiler (the real Seiler plays the judge, and acquits himself honorably). For all its flaws, the movie is never less than watchable. But when I go to see a two-and-a-half-hour film, directed by a recent Oscar winner, and sporting a moniker as weighty as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, I'm looking for more than a semi-pleasant time-filler.
No doubt that comes as a surprise to those of you familiar with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who, in partnership with Marc Caro (who appears in the end credits of Resurrection as "Design Consultant"), was responsible for two visually dazzling French dystopian fantasies, the brilliant Delicatessen (1992) and the less satisfying City of Lost Children (1995). Both of these films are set in imaginary neverworlds sprung from their creators' fertile imaginations, and while it's easy to see why the folks at Fox thought Jeunet was the second-best man for the job (they'd already been rejected by Danny Boyle), in retrospect I wonder whether he's truly in his element when required to cope with a narrative and visual history. The look of Resurrection is impressive but familiar -- the usual dank techno-organic labyrinths -- and of course we've seen the creatures before, so there's nothing much for him to invent...which may be why so much of the picture feels perfunctory and rushed, as if Jeunet were already in a hurry to move on to a more personal project.
By now, even those of you who haven't seen Alien Resurrection probably know how the eponymous event takes place: Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who committed suicide at the end of the previous installment even as an alien queen burst through her chest, is cloned, along with said alien, from a blood sample taken at the prison colony. The cloning process, for reasons explicated by scientist Brad Dourif in an offhanded way that amounts to "because the plot requires it, that's why," combines Ripley's DNA with the alien's, so that this new Ripley (who, f.r.e.b.s.B.D.i.a.o.w.t.a.t."b.t.p.r.i.t.w.", retains all of the old Ripley's memories) is essentially part alien. However ridiculous this may be in terms of logic or genetics, it's a grand idea, and Weaver makes the most of it, with a performance almost as cold and sarcastic as the one she gives in The Ice Storm. In the previous films, the tension level depended on the imminent possibility of alien attack; now, the presence of Ripley herself in any given situation is nerve-wracking, because it's never clear exactly whose side she's actually on -- her contempt for the pirate crew trapped alongside her (including Jeunet perennial Dominique Pinon, Lost Children alumnus Ron Perlman, and a badly miscast Winona Ryder) seems even greater than her fear of the monsters hunting them down.
It should work, but it doesn't. In part, that's because Whedon, whose work on the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" TV series is highly acclaimed (I haven't seen it), and who is reputedly a whiz with zingy post-modern one-liners, can't write "straight" dialogue worth a damn. There are several very funny moments -- my favorite, which I included for a while in my Usenet .sig, is when Call (Ryder), having learned the whereabouts of the Evil Corporate Scientist who's the cause of all the trouble, announces over the vessel's loudspeaker "Intruder on Level One; all aliens please report to Level One" -- but they belong in a different, less somber movie, some Alien-meets-Night of the Comet spoof or something. The rest of the dialogue, on the other hand, sounds as if it's been culled from one of those unintentionally hilarious 1950's short subjects that instructed teenagers about proper dating behavior. ("Hi, Sally. Say, is that repulsive extraterrestrial lifeform still gestating in your womb?" "Why, Tommy, don't be silly. The womb is for human babies. The alien's right here next to my sternum.") Before long, I was rooting for the aliens, if only in the hope that they'd shut up the humans up.
Even more troublesome, though, are the visual effects -- which, ironically, is the only element this kind of picture usually gets right, at least in recent years. Most of what ought to have been the movie's best, creepiest sequences are either hampered or outright destroyed by shoddy effects work; I can't join in the general praise for a scene in which New Ripley, who was the eighth attempt in a series, encounters clones #1-7, because the camera lingers on their horrifically distorted flesh for so long that it's impossible not to recognize them as models, and not especially impressive ones. (Some judicious editing might have worked wonders here -- though not in the case of the ludicrous-looking #7, which is perhaps the single lamest effect I've ever seen in a big-budget Hollywood movie. The creature in Basket Case is more believable.) And in the final reel, something that I'll just call Something Else is introduced -- I won't spoil it for you -- in a scene that was clearly intended to be a veritable tsunami of pathos...and might have been, had this Something Else not looked so -- and I apologize, but I can't think of a more eloquent way to phrase this -- unbelievably stupid. The sudden appearance of Elmo the Muppet could not possibly have been more disconcerting. On paper, I'm sure it was devastating, but on celluloid -- at least in this form -- it's simply laughable. (For an example of a similar instance in which this idea was effective, see David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly.)
As a general rule, I counsel people not to read the script before seeing the movie. In this case, I highly recommend that you read the script instead of seeing the movie. As of this writing, it's available here. Let me know how it plays in your imagination, where you can't see how silly it all is.