Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Cloning: Double trouble," March 7, 1998

By Chris Stamper Can't it get any better?

Ever sit through a movie and be entertained, then realize two hours later that you've been watching complete rubbish? That's As Good As It Gets (rated PG-13 for language, thematic elements, and nudity). Mr. Nicholson plays Melvin, a bestselling writer who says rude things to everybody all the time. Then he decides to invade the life of his favorite waitress. This Helen Hunt character is a single mother with a sick boy. Melvin decides to shell out beaucoup bucks on doctor bills to bring him back to health. The waitress drifts back and forth from being repulsed by his rudeness and grateful for his generosity. Every time Melvin says something horrible and she runs away, he says something sweet and she forgives him. Jack Nicholson is playing this mean old man, so all is forgiven. One point in this movie shows where things could have gone: Melvin has just barged into his psychiatrist's office. As he leaves, he walks into a room full of depressives waiting to see the shrink. He turns his head and looks at them, cruelly asking, "What if this is as good as it gets?" If only filmmaker James L. Brooks had taken his question seriously and led his trio of messed-up lives through a good dose of true soul-searching instead of gimme-an-Oscar bathos, the movie might have gotten a lot better.

Depravity of the will

A younger, cockier character is Will Hunting, the title character of Good Will Hunting (rated R for language), played by The Rainmaker's Matt Damon. He's a 20-year-old self-educated genius and a mathematic prodigy. He's also an immature punk and a former delinquent orphan who winds up a janitor at MIT. He refuses to use his brain to pull himself out of the squalor of South Boston. After he assaults a cop after a fight, he's forced by a judge to see an analyst. Enter Dr. Robin Williams. He's an old-time-shrink doctor from the days when Freud was the prophet of pre-postmodernism. The psychiatrist used to be an Old Left hero, a tireless crusader who fought to grasp the depths of the human psyche. Mr. Williams plays this character masterfully. Will picks the good doctor apart, exploiting his grief over his wife's death. The shrink fights back, eventually showing the young man that the beatings his foster father gave him weren't his fault. Before the breakthrough, Will becomes a pest. A Harvard heiress (Minnie Driver) falls for Will. After dating her for a while, Will abruptly dumps her, leaving her crushed. The shrink sees this as Will's fear of attachment; he leaves her before she has a chance to leave him. After accepting heaps of abuse, the good doctor doesn't accept that Will is rotten to the core. After all, Will Hunting is Good Will Hunting. The movie develops Will well. His brash personality seems winsome at first, but the same traits show their dark side later in the movie as we see more of his self-destructiveness. Too bad it treats Will's root problem as his fears instead of his self-worship.While the movie is hunting for good will, it forgets the bondage of the will.

The founding fathers' song and dance

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Light the fireworks. One of this season's surprise hits on Broadway is a revival of 1776. Down the street from the troubled transvestites, crashing chandeliers, and recycled cartoons on other stages is this musical comedy about the Continental Congress preparing the Declaration of Independence. (The original production upset Hair for Best Musical at the 1969 Tonys.) The fate of the New World rests on a handful of representatives holed up in Philadelphia. Ben Brent Spiner, Star Trek's Data, is John Adams fighting for a unanimous vote to launch the United States. He feels he's surrounded by idiots. "I have come to the conclusion," he says early in the show, "that one useless man is called a disgrace, that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!" Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are around to fight for liberty in their own ways. Franklin keeps falling asleep. Jefferson prefers spending quality time with his pretty new wife to writing about life, liberty, and property. (The great Christian statesman John Witherspoon is only a small part and comes off as a bit doltish. Sigh.) It's an uphill battle, especially when George Washington sends one depressing dispatch after another about the state of the war. 1776 concerns itself more with the clash of personalities than political convictions. Still, the dialogue is sharp and fast paced. The debates play like a superhuman C-SPAN. The tensest moment comes when a South Carolina representative fights the Declaration's call for the abolition of slavery. All in all, 1776 adds enough sparkle to be entertaining; yet it restrains its drollness so one doesn't feel the show is a complete trivialization of the Founding.

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