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WILL HUNTING is the genius janitor of MIT. While silver-spoon coeds sweat over complex math problems, he solves them as he mops the halls.

When a Harvard grad student spouts economic theories to impress a woman in a bar, Will -- having read the same books on his own time -- spouts them back, chiding the Ivy Leaguer for wasting money on a formal education when he could have earned the equivalent for "$1.50 in overdue library fees."

And when a professor stumbles upon Will's brilliance, the custodial Einstein shuns him, fearful the attention will disrupt his safe terrain of underachievement.

Such is the premise of "Good Will Hunting," a script that began as a creative writing assignment and ended with a new name on Hollywood's A-list.

At the very moment the public had distinguished Chris O'Donnell from Ethan Hawke, along comes Matt Damon. He's had small roles in so-so movies like "Courage Under Fire" and "School Ties." Now he has the lead role in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Rainmaker" and "Good Will Hunting," which he began writing as a Harvard undergrad and finished with his best friend and co-star, Ben Affleck.

A weirdly mainstream choice for director Gus Van Sant ("Drugstore Cowboy," "My Own Private Idaho"), "Good Will Hunting" is a quietly engaging, predictable movie. It's reminiscent of, but not as striking as, "Ordinary People" and "The Prince of Tides." You know the genre: The character learns, with the help of a shrink-turned-friend, to face his deepest fears.

It's a subject that warrants re-treatment. You can get away with only so many "Mighty Ducks" spinoffs, but a theme as universal as inner turmoil can go 'round and 'round.

To its credit, "Good Will Hunting" escapes monotony with a smart script and well-drawn characters. Even minor parts make heavy impressions. The professor's student assistant humbly accepts his demotion to coffee gofer when Will becomes the teacher's newest protege. The role consists of about a dozen lines, but such attention to the periphery elevates "Good Will Hunting" from the tired touchy-feelism of so many releases of its ilk.

Will and his buddies divide their time between South Boston batting cages and bars, with an occasional fight to break up the routine. When a brawl threatens to land Will in jail, the professor, Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard), pleads successfully for leniency, promising the judge to make his new charge seek counseling.

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With that, Lambeau reluctantly turns to his old college roommate Sean (Robin Williams), a psychotherapist/community college teacher. Like almost every character in "Good Will Hunting," Sean and Lambeau have trunks full of angst, which come unlocked with Will around.

The analytical god of MIT, Lambeau has female students swooning over his chalkboard. He's the winner of a Fields Medal, mathematics' Nobel Prize. He can look at Sean, withering in junior-college oblivion, with a snide sense of superiority. Yet vis-a-vis Will, he's a second-rate smartie, a terrifying new role to assume.

Sean deals with dim bulbs every day. Since his wife died two years ago, Sean has buried his emotions.

In many ways, Sean and Will come from the same place: They're both Irish-American "Southies," from South Boston. They both were abused by their fathers, one of the script's unnecessary parallels. They're both retreating from the world of risk.

Meanwhile, Will has found love in Skylar (Minnie Driver), a Harvard senior who has everything he doesn't: money, ambitions and a willingness to take plunges with her personal life. Driver is a comfortable fit here. She's funny, tender and unafraid to look goofy when the role requires it.

The movie's resolution is wanting. While "Good Will Hunting" makes a point of stressing how deep its characters' conflicts run, everyone snappily comes to terms with his problems. The professors resolve their 25-year-old feud, for example, over a beer.

But if you're looking for something that speaks to the spirit of the season, "Good Will" will do the trick. Were you expecting to find it in James Bond or an American werewolf?


Good Will Hunting

Rating: *** 1/2

A genius is discovered swabbing the halls of MIT. Starring Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Stellan Skarsgard, Minnie Driver and Ben Affleck. Directed by Gus Vant Sant. Rated R, playing at area theaters.

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