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

Written by Dorothy on September 19th, 2011

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

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21 Comments so far ↓

  1. Tristan says:

    I love this. I think this is brilliant. And I say this in the midst of trying to disentangle David Harvey's "The Condition of Postmodernity" on my way to obtaining my PhD.

  2. Hadn't realised that was a Gus vanSant film. Explains a lot. Never thought of Hunting as the main character in it – rather the psch was because in the end, he "knew what was important" which wasn't money or prestige, but getting the girl.

    Of course it'd be hard to imagine a sequel to GWH. Even if what happened was what you suggested, the film works only because we DON'T find out what happens to any of them. rather we are given the HOPE of a "better life". Elephant was a better film for me, only because I hated High school and understood the gunmen (not that I'd do that myself).

  3. Nick Lamb says:

    Laura – Never say never about sequels. If you'd asked me, as the end credits rolled for Before Sunrise, I'd have been 100% certain nobody (Linklater included) could make a sequel. But Before Sunset works. It works because everybody has had those extra years to grow and change. The characters in the story, the director and actors, and perhaps most of all the audience. I'm not sure Sunset works if you first saw Sunrise an hour before, if you're the same person as you were then.

  4. David Thomsen says:

    I just realised what a terrifying thing it must be to have your work critiqued by Dorothy Gambrell.

    I enjoyed the film, but I never thought it was actually a clever film just because it featured a genius. That’s like saying ‘Big Bang Theory’ is a smart show, when it is in fact a rather mediocre sitcom that happens to be about a group of geniuses.

    I enjoyed ‘Good Will Hunting’ because it’s about a genius who is aware of the dangers involved in applying that genius. Most smart people I’ve ever met have been too arrogant to ever consider this option. Darwin was aware of the dangers of publishing his Origin Of Species, but even he couldn’t let another writer publish the idea before him.

  5. Iago says:

    A sequel to GWH? Why, it's already being made! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZ70hbvaPdU

    Exciting essay. It's hard not to get drawn into the secluded world of your university. It's hard not to step back when it is the life you live and you hope to keep living.

  6. garth says:

    it'd probably be like shooting ducks…
    but could you write a few words about "A River Runs Through It"?
    my nominee for the worst movie that was ever popular.

  7. T. Derscheid says:

    My nominee for Worst Movie Ever would be Pushing Tin. John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton behave badly, in an uncaring universe, pointlessly, for a long, long time.

  8. Jordan S. says:

    Excellent post, Dorothy. I initially viewed GWH in highschool, not knowing much about anything. A few years later, while I was in college, I watched GWH again thinking I might actually understand some the plot intricacies. Oh, boy, I was blown away.

    In the months prior to my 2nd viewing, I had become a disillusioned college student, because I saw past the shiny, ivory exterior of the university I was attending. All I saw was pseudo intellectuals just trying to stroke their egos with other pseudo intellectuals. It was just a large circle jerk. Then after the subprime mortgage crisis, and the lack of an easy future for people with a shiny, worthless pieces of paper – myself included – led me to believe if you want to create or do something of notoriety in your life you have to go out there and fucking do it, and Goodwill simply presented it to me.

  9. William Lee says:

    As long as we’re taking votes for ‘worst movie’ how about On Golden Pond? keerist.

    Haven’t seen Good Will Hunting, had no intention of doing so, and have even less now. Thanks for a fun summary! At least I now know what it was about, for whatever that’s worth…

  10. Alan says:

    I went to a University that prides itself on it's talented Mathies (both staff and student) and perhaps because of that I saw Will's gifts (plural: speed reading, instant recall and mathematical intuition are all special and discrete) as so over the top that it played out like a modern fable. I was drawn more to the fact that the southies accepted their lot in life and seemed so much more grounded.

    Now for the important stuff, my nominee for Worst Movie Ever would be Titanic. So bad I thought the recommendations and reviews must have been some elaborate April Fools joke. So bad I thought the iceberg was the only believable character. So bad I still mourn the 2 hours I'll never get back.

  11. Alex says:

    Lots of commentary on this post over on MetaFilter today: http://www.metafilter.com/107705/What-Is-Middlebr

  12. B. says:

    You may have overthought this? I think you may have underthought this.

  13. David Thomsen says:

    Your nomination for Worst Ever Movie is a James Cameron movie, but it ISN'T Avatar?

    At least a lot of people genuinely enjoyed Titanic. I even enjoyed it myself until I realised that I'm not actually allowed to.

    Avatar, on the other hand, is not actually a movie. Whenever I criticise the writing of the film, fans always defend the film by saying 'It's not SUPPOSED to be watched for the writing!'

    If a movie is not supposed to be watched for the writing, is it still a movie? Or is it a documentary? I'd say that Avatar is closer to being a documentary about 3D visual effects than it is a movie.

  14. Thomas says:

    I can't believe how pessimistic you're being. Scientists are building a new world, and you're busy complaining about the false hopes of a humanities degree. It is far better to pursue excellence in mathematics than to spend your time working in a garage.

  15. karaannebernadette says:

    Titanic? Goddamn 3 hours. I loved good will hunting because my cousins and brothers act like that. It’s funny.

    pushing tin was dark.and hilarious up til.the.last seven minutes. Simple fun.

    And this is why I hate living in a college town. Just want to run you all over while I’m trying to get to work.

  16. bryan says:

    Freakin' daisy cutters!

  17. Guest says:

    My impression is that the various flavors of mathematics are a learned language.

    Will is shown to be a native genius because he can solve a math problem the professor sets for the students — but he would have to have some background in the language to write the solution in a manner that anyone else would have recognized as the solution.

    I thought it was bogus at that point.

  18. Daniel says:

    The movie also suffers from thinking that the life of a “genius” is somehow different from the townie in some significant way…. He becomes a mathematician, and then what? He’s still poorly paid and working hard for little real recognition.

  19. dissembly says:

    I thumbs-downed you for liking Titanic, because I knew it would annoy you, but now I feel guilty and must explain myself.

    You see, Titanic was a movie we were all *supposed* to enjoy, because they spent a lot of money and because Romeo & Juliet, but you make it sound as if enjoying it was the rebellious thing. Phah I say! It is us haters who are the truer rebels.

    (Truer was a mispelling, but now it looks right.)

    I can prove it scientifically: Titanic came out the same year as Jurassic Park II: The Lost World. JPII:TLW had amazing special effects, employing a mixture of different techniques that blended well, showing us things we always wanted to see – and showing us things with subtlety and grace. The tyrannosaur lapping at the poolwater, the raptors employed in a nod to old submarine movies, BIG DINOSAURS BEING BIG.

    Titanic, on the other hand, had the sort of special effects that belong in made-for-tv-movies. Not just in quality (you can see the seams between CGI models in the long pull-out from the boat), but in directorial choices (I can't think of any use of sfx that was at all moving, or unexpected, or anything much beyond a drab establishing shot. Maybe except for the dude that bounced of the propeller. My favourite character, honestly. Bound up in so much tragedy and inevitable doom).

    Why does this digression on special effects matter?

    BECAUSE TITANIC WON THE SFX OSCAR. AGAINST THE LOST WORLD.

    And I learned that the world was not made for justice. No – the world was made for pomp and money.

  20. selina klye says:

    this may be coming from a 'southie' but you kind of just sound like the dick in the movie trying to impress everyone by finding a film that at least tries to open minds and saying you dont like it with expensive words just so you can be the guy who doesnt like it ,, i dont buy it .. write your own movie ..make it better

  21. I watched it 3 weeks ago and didnt like too..

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