How Robin Williams and ‘Good Will Hunting’ Got Two Fools Through Their College Breakups

Good Will HuntingMiramax via Everett Collection

Between the two of us, my friend Jay and I had probably watched Good Will Hunting more than 50 times through. Like many, we had attached with sincerity to the story of a practically prepubescent Matt Damon, a genius of the Boston slums. As such, the familiar embrace of this particular movie seemed like a good choice when he showed up at my apartment — unanounced, as per usual — with the news that he and his girlfriend had just broken up.

As we sat in my living room on what I remember to be a bizarrely humid afternoon for upstate New York’s autumn, trying our best to invest in the rise and fall of the prodigious Will Hunting, we both experienced something new. We weren’t watching the very same movie that we had time and time over; we weren’t adhered with irreverent empathy to the misunderstood bad boy that we both so vapidly wanted to be (and oh, that hair). Instead, our attentions turned with unprecedented domination to his screen partner: not the cackling Ben Affleck, but Robin Williams. As Sean Maguire, Williams always seemed more like a background player, a vehicle for Will’s transport through his troubles. That is until this unusually muggy Sunday when Sean’s charms and strengths seemed to rear themselves in a new way altogether.

We noticed, sharing our discovery tacitly, that in even the heaviest scenes, Williams was able to command a sharp, hearty laugh. Mere syllables uttered by the master of performance, portraying a man who embodied the idea of disgruntlement, sent Jay and I into delirious cackling fits. Williams was doing more with this role — the would-be square straight man part to the effortlessly cool Damon’s young, debonair rebel — than we had ever understood. He was playing anger, judgment, and frustration in a very special way. A way that conveyed colossal pain and tremendous humor all at once.

After so many views of Good Will Hunting, we had discovered anew just how funny it was. And from this was born our mission: we decided to dub over it. A project pioneered in the interest of emancipating Jay from concentration on his heartbreak, we leapt into intense study of the film — of Damon’s swagger, of Ben Affleck’s buffoonery, and most of all, of one Robin Williams’ freshly realized exhilirating display of dry humor.

Jay, whose timber was more conducive to the leading man position, played Will. I happily nabbed Affleck’s Chuckie. We traded off the Stellan Skarsgaard and Cole Hauser roles, and left all of Casey Affleck’s original dialogue in the finished product… for good measure. And I, the significantly faster speaker, was lucky enough to play the coveted role: Robin Williams.

To everyone else our project seemed like a bout of idiocy. Occasionally, we submitted to this designation. But we weren’t in this to waste our junior year, or even (as so many seemed to think) to mock or parody a movie that we had seen one too many times. No, we were in it because we saw something in Williams and his role that spoke to us at that time. In the dark hours that met with Sean Maguire, he — or maybe Williams — made us laugh. Hardly at the expense of empathy or sincerity; in fact, Williams/Maguire’s ability to incite a chuckle in the very interest of some of the most emotionally substantial scenes in Gus Van Sant’s film is what stirred and provoked us so. That’s exactly what Jay needed at this time — to find laughter when flat drama was more readily available.

And it’s what I came to need, several months later — our project having fallen by the wayside, what with plenty of other understandable distractions getting in the way — when my own blossoming romance came to a crashing halt. “We’ve got to finish that movie,” I decided then, thinking back on the carnal laughter incited by our scholarly expedition of Williams’ every meticulous nuance.

We did. We stayed up ’til 3 throughout the week, watching, laughing, revising, remodeling… we’d turn away chances to go out with our friends — you know, like normal people — to stay in Jay’s room and work on this masterpiece. We fell hard and fast in love with our take on Good Will Hunting. On Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s clunky but charming script, Gus Van Sant’s occasionally schmaltzy direction. And Robin Williams’ profoundly empathetic and hilarious performance.

By the time we were finished, our respective heartaches had won new perspective. Call it an effective distraction, or maybe it was just therapeutic. But I don’t think quite anything would have worked so well to inspire the greatest creative exploit that the two of us would ever bring to life, nor would just anything help to foster us through lost love with such efficiency. There was just something about that messy, cathartic, ultimately special little movie, and the bearded man who stole the show.

It had to be Good Will Hunting. It had to be Robin Williams.