He's Writing His Own Ticket

Matt Damon IS NO CHRIS O'Donnell. Thank God. Damon is twice the actor O'Donnell is--actually, he's O'Donnell squared--but not long ago he was in the habit of losing roles to the boy wonder of bland. So Damon and his longtime buddy, actor Ben Affleck, wrote a movie for themselves called ""Good Will Hunting.'' They then declined offers as high as $1 million from studios that wanted to buy the script but cast superstars instead. Finally, Miramax met their demands. Later, Gus Van Sant--the edgy director of ""Drugstore Cowboy'' and ""To Die For''--would ask to direct and Robin Williams would call out of the blue to request a supporting role. Still, nothing quite matched the jubilation of that first deal. ""Oh, man, when we finally sold the script, we had everybody over to our house,'' says Damon, 27. ""It was warm Pabst Blue Ribbon for everybody!''

To see the rich and funny ""Good Will Hunting'' is to know, inside of just two or three scenes, why Damon has become Hollywood's undisputed Young Man of the Moment. Will Hunting (Damon) is an abused orphan kid from South Boston with a long rap sheet of assaults and robberies. As it happens, he's also a self-taught genius. But Will has so much rage, self-loathing and class resentment that he refuses to do anything with his gift--he just works as a janitor at MIT, and hangs around with his townie friends looking for fights. Before long, though, people are getting in line to try and redeem him: a blue-collar buddy (Affleck), a math professor (Stellan Skarsgard), a shrink (Williams) and a rich, beautiful Harvard student (Minnie Driver).

All this may sound dangerously gooey--""Phenomenon'' meets ""Awakenings.'' But Van Sant, working from the tangy, well-written script, gets so much humor, grit and emotional truth out of this tale that the familiar formulas behind it simply fall away. Only at the very end, when the script's invention slightly falters, do you realize just how conventional this movie is. But by then you've already given your heart away.

Damon grew up in Boston, his mother a college professor, his father a Realtor. While at Harvard, he took a playwriting course and wrote a 50-page draft of what would become ""Good Will Hunting.'' Damon left Harvard a year shy of graduation and first spun heads by playing a haunted gulf-war vet in ""Courage Under Fire.'' He's currently starring as an underdog attorney in Francis Ford Coppola's ""The Rainmaker'' and will play the title role in Steven Spielberg's ""Saving Private Ryan.''

But ""Good Will Hunting'' is the movie that makes Damon's case--he's sensationally convincing and appealing as this whiz kid, a fascinating mixture of aggression, sweetness, hurt and intellectual bravado. Affleck, best known for ""Chasing Amy,'' is funny and touching as his loyal friend, and Driver is terrific. Given Will's emotional problems, he has a hard time opening up to her, and Damon and Driver make you feel both the elation and the fear in this push-pull romance. There's no less chemistry between him and Williams, who plays such a complex wise man you almost forget that he's played similar roles before.

Damon, who's smart and unpretentious in a hey-man sort of way, admits to being overwhelmed the first time he saw Williams film a scene that he and Affleck had written. ""By the time they said action, tears were running down my face,'' he says. ""I looked over at Ben and he was the same way. Then right after the scene, Robin came over and put his hands on our heads and said, "It's not a fluke; you guys really did it'.'' We'll drink a Pabst Blue Ribbon to that.