Matt and Ben: The New Men

By Christopher Johnston

“How does a package fall from the ceiling?”

I remember, as we all do, exactly where I was when I first saw Good Will Hunting. A movie theater. It proved an epiphanal experience.

I had just returned from a protracted retreat in Paris, where I mostly holed up in a flat in Montmartre, listening repeatedly to Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, catching French New Wave films like Breathless, Bob Le Flambeur, The 400 Blows, and Elevator to the Gallows, or riding my Vespa on the Rue de Paradise, seeking the most beautiful Limoges cup and saucer set for my girlfriend. Every night, I strode about the city, an unlit Gitane cigarette dangling insouciantly from my mouth, imagining I was Jean-Paul Belmondo or Alain Delon, one of those untouchable, unfeeling movie stars – all in search of the meaning of postmodern manliness in the 21st Century.

True, I felt tres mature, tres cool, tres nouveau francais. But, ultimately, I failed in my quest to gain residence in da man ‘hood.

Conflicted and consternated, I returned to the U.S. of A in January of 1998. I gave my girlfriend her china. Grateful, she took me to see a new film, Good Will Hunting, written by two novice actors and childhood chums from Boston, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and featuring the Energizer funny, Robin Williams. 

Initiating a series of events that define improbability, the Boys from Beantown scored a screenwriting Oscar that catapulted them from anonymity to stardom. It took less than a decade of their ride on the Tinseltown train bound for all points between adulation and tribulation (Is it immoral to shout Gigli! in a crowded theater?) to inspire Brenda Withers and Mindy Kaling (from “The Office”), themselves former Dartmouth classmates, to pen Matt and Ben in 2002.

Most critics have labeled the play a spiteful send-up of two feckless flickerati. The primary premise is that they couldn’t possibly have written this film, and that the script literally falls into their laps from the ceiling of Ben’s apartment – forever proving the adage that everyone has at least one screenplay in him – while they struggled to hack out their adaptation, the highest form of flattery, according to Ben, or their theft, according to Matt, of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. 

Nevertheless, I find the play a celebration of what Damon and Affleck’s achievement actually represents: the evolution of white males in the postfeminist 21st century. This, however, is only true when they are considered as a unified whole. When so joined, they become the yin and yang of manliness. They become the logical progression of the anti-hero, from Brando to Ben, from DeNiro to Damon.

In the same way Affleck has twice found himself the victim of our current lust for nominative neologism, first Bennifer (during his courtship of Jennifer Lopez), now Bennifer 2 (?) (following his marriage to Jennifer Garner), we must imagine them merged, as Damfleck or Affmon, to fully realize their evolution as the conjoined components of the ideal man.

We witness this sacred union in the play when Ben, the penultimate macho man, becomes Gwyneth Paltrow, giving him a feminine side, while Matt, the prototypical metrosexual, becomes JD Salinger, the manly talisman for artists with integrity vis a vis sellouts.

Moreover, the playwrights imbue this play with Biblical allusions, from the career-saving script dropped from the heavens to the presence of Paltrow; after all, she did give birth to an Apple, symbol of Eden, but only after breaking up with Ben, while the other half of this Hollywood Hotsome, Matt, we fondly recall, briefly uber-coupled with Winona “Rodeo Drive” Ryder.

Further, Salinger, who lived behind a self-imposed Wall of Silence for 40 years, becomes analogous to God as the unseen, awesome deity who we believe possesses cosmic answers of some kind but refuses to respond to us, hiding his face, withholding his creation. (There’s no small irony in the fact that Salinger broke his decades-long exile by reissuing his 1965 short story, “Hapworth 16, 1964,” shortly after the release of Good Will Hunting.)

Thus, throughout the play, which follows the pals’ performances in the seminal coming-of-age film, School Ties, we witness the humbling first convergence of male “actor” and “movie star” into one singular entity. The “Movie Star/Actor” is indivisible, a wonder of aspects and perspectives without limit, yet irreducible to any of the roots that give it life.

While we lesser humans remain moored in the belief that intelligence is the critical determinant of success – Surprise! – Matt and Ben continue to navigate their way through our increasingly complex world by employing an elegant economy of thought. In the manly but playful mean-spiritedness of the characters’ interplay, the play adeptly reinforces the nearly unanimous belief that Matt is more intelligent and a better actor, while Ben is more handsome and…better looking.

Let’s be honest, this play reminds us that, as a nation, we adore our Matt and Ben, who represent all our beloved movie stars who beguile us by trying to balance acting and acting out, acrobatic addictions and nonstop neuroses, and a collective marital state marked by more annulments than anniversaries. As fans, we disingenuously plead for their protection from the paparazzi, as we stay remotely controlled by Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, and TMZ, firmly entrenched in our sound byte zeitgeist. (Text that three times quickly!)

For now, though, M&B continue taunting us with their rumored sequel, Will Bourne Again, shot as a claymation feature and voiced by Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Will Ferrell, Steve Buscemi, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, J-Lo, Justin Timberlake, Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon, Parker Posey, and Kevin Bacon.

Ultimately, we hope our celluloid he-men reunite physically and figuratively sometime before they are consigned to terminal nose hairs, manboobs and, gasp, character roles in remakes of The Over The Hill Gang to write and star in one more story – a la Eastwood in The Unforgiven – of redemptive resolution.

Quite simply, in the midst of a surging war and sagging economy, Mattjamin and Bentthew, we need you.