Good Will Hunting is my Least Favorite Movie of All Time: An Opus in Three Parts

Guest blogger Dorothy Gambrell cartoons for Cat & Girl every Tuesday and Thursday and lives in an “up and coming neighborhood.” She went to college in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

I. Good Will Hunting is my Least Favorite Movie of All Time

“Art” can mean a lot of things. Almost anything, really. But surely it has never referred to the movies I saw at art cinemas in the late 1990s. Emma. The English Patient. Shine. Movies whose running times were spent complementing the audience on their fine taste in movies. Movies that feigned intellectual discourse by taking place in a foreign country or at a past time or by being based on a well-received novel. You know – middlebrow.

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

I was home from college for the summer when I saw Good Will Hunting. We watched it together, my family, on the couch in the den where the television was and where we spent most of our time together. The living room was reserved for guests we never had, and the Christmas tree. Middlebrow.

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

My parents – like most of the world – loved Good Will Hunting. But not me. No way. If Good WIll Hunting had just dressed up the cheap thrills of a coherent narrative in vague sentiments of educational merit, well, there was nothing novel in that. But Good Will Hunting was different. Good Will Hunting was insincere. Good Will Hunting was 126 minutes of Gus Van Sant encouraging his audience to congratulate themselves and then mocking them when they did so – with a sly wink at those of us cultured enough to “get it.”

That was me, all right. I was in college. I had read Walter Benjamin! I got it.

A movie that tells you you’re smart is a movie that appeals to people who want to be smarter, an audience that spends even its leisure time aspirationally. An audience that sends its children to expensive colleges, that believes in education as the surest path upward into the meritocracy. An audience that wants to better themselves and believes that such a thing is possible.


II. On Just Now Rewatching Good Will Hunting, Previously My Least Favorite Movie of All Time

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

As Will drives away from Boston we can feel safe assuming he ends up in California with a job and a girlfriend. It’s the promise the movie has made to us. We can assume that four years later, when Skylar graduates from medical school, Chuckie and Morgan are drinking beers across a pickup truck at a construction site. But the futures within movies take place in an infinite present. And fifteen years later Will Hunting will be fifteen years older in a world that’s never seen a Governor Schwarzenegger or a war in Afghanistan. Or the gentrification of Southie.

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

Clark the obnoxious graduate student thinks he can impress Skylar with his academic browbeating of two townies. But when Will proves more than his equal, Clark resorts to the sheer weight of social privilege. In the future – the future world of Good Will Hunting, where characters grow older but the year remains 1997 – we know that if Will and Clark meet at that drive-through it will be as two upper-class tourists. In the future where it is 2011 the joke is on a guy getting a Humanities Ph.D. who thinks he’ll end up making more money than anyone. In 2011 Clark gave up his part time adjunct position at Florida Gulf Coast University to go to culinary school, and the locally sourced lamb burgers he sells at a drive-though in Vermont have been featured in the New York Times Style Section.

He will never finish paying his student loans.

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

Will’s intelligence is unquestioned, but the opportunity to leave of Southie doesn’t present itself until he catches the attention of an MIT professor. His therapist teaches at a community college, but they only meet because the therapist’s MIT roommate was Professor Lambeau. Will’s relationship with Skylar isn’t just a relationship with someone who can recognize his intellectual gifts  – it’s a relationship with the people she’s met at “Private school, Harvard, and now Med. School.” You can get a Harvard education at the library for a dollar and fifty cents in late fees, but you can’t get the social contacts.

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

Good Will Hunting is the myth of the self-correcting meritocracy written by two guys who went to fancy colleges and had some personal interest in the continued relevance of that meritocracy’s institutions. And when I saw it as a college student – as an incipient if reluctant member of that meritocracy – I bristled. I bristled at the aesthetics I was in training to leave behind, and values that had sent me on my way. I bristled at the new aesthetics and expectations I was encountering, like I had entered a religious order and was only now realizing what vows I had sworn to uphold. And I realized, suddenly, on that old couch whose worn center springs pitched everyone towards the middle, amid shelves heavy with twenty volume collections of “the classics,” in the room with the television where we spent all our time, what it was I was losing.

But now, fifteen years later – now that meritocracy and its advantages are a distant smudge on the horizon – now I can’t bring myself to care.

Now I don’t hate Good Will Hunting very much at all.

III. But I May Have Overthought This

Good Will Hunting is My Least Favorite Movie

Images Cinema is currently showing The Help.

A comedy of errors, you see

I must say, I was surprised to recently discover that there was a music video for Elliott Smith’s “Miss Misery.”

“Miss Misery” is, of course, Smith’s song that plays during the Good Will Hunting closing credits as Will drives off to California. In 1998 it was nominated for Best Original Song (losing out to Celine Dion’s Titanic theme… because the Oscars are stupid.)

Some would say “having a good time is important when making a music video,” and never has someone seemed more miserable in a music video than Mr. Smith appears here.

As he would at the Oscar performance, he wears white formal wear, and like the Oscar performance, he is not having a good time.

Elliott Smith at the Oscars
Smith (in a white suit)

It would be fair to say, I think, that Elliott Smith didn’t belong in the spotlight. His music was for quiet, dimly lit moments, lingering in the background. That’s why it worked so well with the visuals of crumbling working class apartments and late nights in dorm rooms in Good Will Hunting. Once you start listening too carefully, though, you discover the severity of the pain in his lyrics — his melancholy runs quite deep. He wasn’t meant for People Magazine.

Beck (in a white suit)
Beck (in a white suit)

In a 2000 interview with In Music We Trust he explained his ambivalence with the fame that came with Good Will Hunting :

Too much exposure, it makes you feel like a cartoon character. I’m the gloomy folk cartoon figure. Nobody wants to feel like a cartoon, but at the same time I don’t want to complain.

It all depends on how much you buy into it, though. People Magazine called me a Beck impostor because I played the Oscars in a white suit. Great, both Beck and I wore white suits, so I must be a Beck impostor. Things like that… you can choose to buy into them or just ignore them. I choose not to read press about me anymore.

The success of Good Will Hunting (for the filmmakers, as well as for this musician) was unexpected, to be sure, and the icing on the cake is much like this white suit (if you will); under close scrutiny, it’s not quite what it seems to be. Is the film a conventional, hopeful, earnest story with a big movie star (Williams), dressed up like a scrappy, rough-around-the-edges indie drama? Or is it an unapologetic, ardent indie film, adorned with some Oscar-bait monologues that were tacked on to pay the bills? Either way, does the suit fit?

Justin Stewart of Reverse Shot writes in his article “New Math“:

There’s something hostile, even violent, about the way this movie’s writing screams for attention. As much as Van Sant and Elliott Smith are able to mute it, Good Will Hunting still gives one a feeling for what it must have been like for Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in meetings with the Weinsteins (“Emotion the fuck out of this scene!”).

I like this notion of Smith’s role — to dampen the more freewheeling emotion of the film, bringing a subtlety to some of the more clunky aspects of the screenplay. It helps speak to the question of what on earth the song “Miss Misery” is doing alongside our otherwise happy, driving-off-into-the-sunset ending.

Good Will Hunting final shot

To vanish into oblivion
Is easy to do
And I try to be, but you know me
I come back when you want me to
Do you miss me, Miss Misery
Like you say you do?

The prevalence of Smith’s work on the soundtrack, not unlike Simon and Garfunkle’s in The Graduate, sets a distinct tone that — at first glance — seems to have less to do with the content of their lyrics than the quality of their sound. But the attitude behind the words are important, and I think the similarities between the films extends to the the ambivalence of their endings. One can’t imagine a sunnier-sounding outfit than Simon and Garfunkle, but what could be bleaker than the opening lyric, “hello darkness, my old friend”? “The Sound of Silence” informs the conclusion of The Graduate quite succinctly — the return of the dark, isolating unsureness Ben feels towards his future will surely set in shortly, and it perhaps already has for the pensive-looking Elaine in that final shot.

Still from The Graduate

With Smith’s tender “Miss Misery,” does Will’s uncertainty — a “vanish into oblivion” — also return? It rings true for me that would. A solo cross country road trip brings with it a lot of time to question one’s decisions and recoup some dark doubts. With Elliott Smith’s romantic ode to relapse seeping in as the credits roll, Van Sant deftly wrinkles the edge of the seemingly happy ending. No white suit can remain quite so pristine.

Check out this decidedly less uncomfortable — and surprisingly intimate — 1998 performance of “Miss Misery” on Conan O’Brien.

For more on Smith and Good Will Hunting, and to watch Smith’s Oscar performance, see Blog Will Hunting contributor Dave’s thoughtful piece on Smith’s soundtrack from last year and his essay on the album “Either/Or” on Tiny Mix Tapes.

A conversation about Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting

I’ve learned from the best that a good blog isn’t afraid to bring you right into the conversation, into the formation of its ideas as they are being constructed and processed.

So I figured I would go ahead and share the following online conversation I recently had with a friend, former Bostonian Dave C.

Good Will Hunting

I bring you a discussion of life, masculinity, and the conceptual underpinnings of Good Will Hunting.

Dave: i didn’t know that blog will hunting was your blog
i thought it was just something you linked to a lot
me: nope, it’s mine!
Dave: i read all of it on sunday
what i love is that you don’t even think it’s an objectively great movie
me: yeah
it would never go in my top anything list
Dave: so what is it?
me: but it feels very culturally/personally significant
and it feels like Bostonians are sort of grasping at straws to find themselves reflected in film and that’s the best they can do
I’ve never quite written the definitive post answering that question, but it’s an important one: what is it about Good Will Hunting?
That I saw it senior year of high school, and that it felt very indie and masculine, meant a lot
Dave: masculine interesting
a lot of manly love it’s true
interesting that the “girl” robin williams had to see about is dead
me: there was some dumb book a while ago that explored “male spaces” — it was essays and photos, and talked about barber shops and dugouts etc
and GWH inhabits a lot of those spaces
Dave: are the spaces just for hiding from chicks
or do they have merits
me: I think merits
I think simply they are “safe”
Dave: in that context the baseball scene is interesting
because bleachers are really for moms
me: so yeah maybe there’s some hiding there
Dave: but they are reclaiming it as a safe man space
me: yeah!
also, the therapy scene when they are talking about baseball
there’s a shot from above that shows that they are sitting essentially in a baseball diamond of chairs
and then they reenact the game 6 scene
Dave: so how about this for a way of looking at it
what he’s doing is incrementally expanding his safe man space
me: so it’s this baseballification and male-ification of the potentially girly, feelings space
Dave: going to therapy fine, but still with the safety blanket of baseball
me: yeah
Dave: he will engage in an intellectual discussion, fine, but only in the context of threatening someone
always the safety blanket
me: yeah
Dave: you know this already
i’m getting there slowly
ok here’s a question
me: the strength of the movie is by far the friends scenes
Dave: what is “Boston” about the movie besides the fact that it is filmed at au bon pain
why could it not have been filmed in any other city, with lots of shots of scenery of the city
me: good question.
I will answer that by paraphrasing Robin Williams in the film
Will argues that there’s pride in work, in labor
in being a janitor even
and Williams’ character counters, why are you a janitor all the way in Cambridge when you could just be a janitor around the corner
Harvard and MIT are the poster children for smart kids
and the tensions and rewards of university/townie relations
Dave: bam
great answer
me: the mythology of the damon-affleck friendship is also critical to the film’s success and staying power
Dave: also i think it has something to do with the red sox
i don’t know if that movie can be as good if the red sox won the world series in 1995
me: yeah
there’s a pride in not succeeding
Dave: ok here’s something i find weird
the scene where williams says he can bench a lot
me: yeah
so weird
Dave: A of all, he clearly can’t, look at him
B of all, who cares?
me: yeah, I always thought he was bullshitting
Dave: interesting
me: just playing along with the one-up-manship
Dave: how old is will hunting
me: he turns 21
towards the end
Dave: oh snap that young
how old is skylar
me: yeah, his friends give him the car
she is supposedly about that age
though she’s all European so maybe she took some time off before college
Dave: ok heres a question
why this dichotomy between genius and construction
why cant he be a rich genius AND be best friends w chuckie
me: hmm
well, having both is not a very good story, and that self-consciousness seems important to him
he also seems to genuinely believe he can’t have it all
the film’s psychology would have us believe it’s because of his abusive upbringing
Dave: that he has what he deserves
me: or perhaps more accurately, those who have more don’t deserve it
ok, I’m gonna go to the library, and then the gym

Good Will Hunting

It’s a good car; the engine’s good.

I think my favorite scene in Good Will Hunting is the short sequence towards the end where Will receives a car from his friends for his birthday. After a bunch of tedious plot wrapping-up — the unloading of “it’s not your fault,” some introspective scenes with Will thinking quietly, Will accepting an ambiguous corporate math job with “MacNeil” — the birthday scene is a welcome breather, and a reminder of what is exceptional about the film.

A few years back, I declared I would have a Good Will Hunting Renaissance. It was on my list for the summer. Friends talked it up for weeks. We had not seen the film for years, and in particular, we had not seen it since working in Harvard Square every day.

I can’t say we weren’t disappointed. The chummy therapy, the romance, the arc of self-forgiveness — it’s forced and clumsily stitched together. In the scene that immediately proceeds the birthday scene, Will meets with Sean for his final therapy session — “You’re a free man” he says to Will. And we are to believe he is…

Since it’s “not your fault,” you just have to get a job, a car, a girl, and follow your dreams.

But when Will and his friends gather, the film is understated, charming even when distasteful, and focuses on characters that seem to actually inhabit the world — all this plus blow job jokes.

Will’s pals surprise him with a gift that will complete his process of self-actualization — it’s a clunker of a car but it will get him on the road to see about a girl; he’s no longer restrained to the T or to carpooling (though admittedly, as Chuckie points out, “Morgan wanted to get you a T-pass.”) The exchange is typical of the four guys’ loving and pervasively insulting relationship.

“This is the ugliest fucking car I’ve ever seen in my life,” Will jokes with genuine gratitude.

The character Bill, whose role as fourth-friend is generally “guy passing out drunk in the corner” delivers the oddly heartfelt, half-mumbled, “It’s a good car. The engine’s good.” Compared to “you’re a free man” or “I had to see about a girl,” I much prefer this line as a summary for what Will has learned over the course of the film. It’s a good engine — it’ll get you places — and that’s what matters.

It’s a good birthday.