Monday, 2 May 2011

So when does Ben Affleck stop being the butt of the joke?

The Academy Awards, 1998. Two young best friends triumphantly hold their Oscars aloft, having come together to write the electric screenplay for one of 1997's most successful and critically lauded films. Before they were barely recognisable, now they stood with the world at their feet.

Fast-forward five years and one of those young men, Matt Damon, was well on the way to fulfilling that potential and becoming one of the biggest stars on the planet. He had just starred in The Bourne Identity, which would go on to be one of the defining franchises of the early twenty-first century. His acting career was taking off, but the creative promise he had shown as a writer for Good Will Hunting was yet to develop; his only other writing credit, 2002's Gerry, was far less impressive and successful than his Oscar-winning effort.

At the same stage of his career, Ben Affleck, co-writer of Good Will Hunting, was in trouble. In 2003 he starred in three films: Daredevil, Gigli and Paycheck. All of them were regarded as dismal failures, with Affleck getting a huge chunk of the blame. His high profile relationship with Jennifer Lopez and their abysmal performances alongside each other in Gigli had made him a laughing stock. That Affleck could be an Oscar-winning writer began to draw snorts of derision from his critics. A whispering campaign began that soon morphed into a common pop culture assumption: Matt Damon was the driving force behind Good Will Hunting and Ben Affleck was just along for the ride.

That assumption remains strong in 2011, and Affleck still retains an army of critics. However, the doubters and hecklers have started to be drowned out by the growing number of Affleck's defenders and supporters. For every film fan that feels Affleck has committed unforgivable crimes against cinema, there is one that feels he is a talented man that has made some bad decisions. Just as he had become a star off the back of work he had done off-screen, he has been rebuilding his reputation in the same way. Gone are the days of ill-conceived blockbusters and unfunny comedies, Affleck is now a writer-director whose first two films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town  have been brilliantly crafted, critically acclaimed and purely entertaining. Suddenly that whispering campaign seems far less credible.

Affleck has shown his eye for a story and maturity in delivering grown-up tales with challenging themes. He can draw great performances from his stars (both Gone Baby Gone and The Town received Oscar-nominations in acting categories). This maturity has seen his own acting ability develop dramatically, whether it be directing himself and convincing as a leading man in The Town, or offering great support in political thriller State of Play. The simple fact of the matter is that Ben Affleck just isn't a joke any more. The people that still feel he is are clinging to an image of Affleck that is half a decade old.

Half a decade is a long time in movies.

So, what about Good Will Hunting? Well the simple truth is that two young friends got together and co-wrote a great screenplay and lived the dream. Their careers may have taken different paths but the talent they showed has never gone away. Most people in the know see Ben Affleck as having a great future behind the camera. Matt Damon's future in front of it is assured but it would come as no surprise if he chose to have a crack at directing at some point in the future. He'd be good at it, too.

Maybe it's time Matt Damon and Ben Affleck collaborated again...

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