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.

Suckers.

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.

IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT

The “It’s not your fault!” sequence of Good Will Hunting puts forth what is probably the quote (repeated over and over again) that has most permeated pop culture. “It’s not your fault!” Robin Williams insists. Though my peers and I incorporate many a GWH reference into our conversations, “It’s not your fault” seems to be a genuine cultural reference among non-devotees.

Last spring Apple ran an ad with some genuine GWH subtext, as noted by blogger Gabe Jacobs. Have Matt and Ben made their mark upon the very language of psychotherapy? Move over, “how does that make you feel?”!

Does this make Minnie Driver a Mac? Because Skylar totally would be.

Ben Affleck, Pink Hats, and the Perceived Loss of Authenticity

How strange it was to glance up at the television screen during Tuesday’s Red Sox game to see NESN repeatedly zoomed in on none other than Good Will Hunting’s and Cambridge, MA’s own Ben Affleck. This is nothing new, I suppose. His presence has been documented in his sweet dugout-hugging seats before.

Actor Ben Affleck leans in to speak to players and coaches in the Boston Red Sox dugout during their baseball game against the Florida Marlins at Fenway Park in Boston Tuesday, June 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Actor Ben Affleck leans in to speak to players and coaches in the Boston Red Sox dugout during their baseball game against the Florida Marlins at Fenway Park in Boston Tuesday, June 16, 2009. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

But let’s step back a minute and observe how far we’ve come from Southie (and Cambridge Rindge & Latin)….

Brown-bagging spectators at Little League.
Brown-bagging it at Little League.

One of the many safe and stable realms of male bonding that Good Will Hunting establishes is baseball. This is of course a recognized Bostonian phenomenon: the Sox, the Curse, the brotherhood of “Red Sox Nation.” There is a key sequence in the film that invokes this (occasionally) unspoken bond among Bostonians — Will and his therapist’s nostalgic recollection of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Director Gus Van Sant intercuts archival footage, so soaked in nostalgia it has gone grainy and soiled, with the boys’ energetic reenactment of the game’s climax.

"Thirty-five thousand people went crazy. And I wasn't one of them." -- Sean (Robin Williams)

I can’t help connecting the dots from Good Will Hunting‘s grimy nostalgia for 1975 into the future to the Red Sox “Dirt Dogs,” mucked-up helmets, bunch-of-idiots, dirty-water sensibility. This aura clung to the authenticity of the true fans, sitting in the stands in rain or sleet or heartbreaking loss for decades.

That said, recent years have lent the franchise a slew of other connotations, many not in keeping with the underdog mentality so many have cheered for.

So here we are, back from 1975 and 1997, on June 16, 2009…

(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Affleck and Kevin Youkilis (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

How weird and false and inappropriate it is to see a dashing, cleft-chinned version of Chuckie Sullivan on Boston’s plasma screens, in Fenway’s front-row, coyly sporting a Celtics t-shirt like an expatriate with something to prove.

How strange it is to see Kevin Youkilis (his shaved head distinctive though out-of-focus) and Affleck in the same AP photograph, their worlds-colliding romantic-histories seeming so much more Hollywood than Boston. (Youk is married to former Affleck beau Ezna Sambataro. Just please, don’t call them Kevezna).

(And Ben and Youk, encountering on this public stage…. Awkward!)

There is a real cognitive dissonance in seeing Morgan in the Little League stands and then Ben at Fenway. Affleck is such Glossy Movie Star these days (but hardly even in movies people sees anymore) and it invalidates that grainy authenticity of Southie, the unrefined Morgan Sullivan, and good ole Will Hunting’s modest dream to grow up taking their kids to little league together.

Affleck’s post-GWH transformation into Tabloid Cover Boy is paralleled by the Fenway Faithful’s transformation into “Pink Hats” (as lamented by tried-and-true Sox fans).  Are we mourning the loss of authenticity?  Has the Dirty Boston in Affleck been reduced to a crisp Pink Hat? Is the Matt & Ben we-won-Oscars-for-a-middling-screenplay-but-we’re-best-friends-so-it’s-adorable fairy tale just marketing hooey?

I don’t know, but I do know that the photographer at Tuesday’s Red Sox game should have been focusing on Youk (the first-baseman! leading the team in on base percentage and helping kids and awesomeness!); not on some Supertramp fan in the front row.