There’s lots of obvious reasons to like Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Robin Williams and Stellan Skarsgard all in one movie. The superb direction and cinematography of Van Sant. The empathy we feel for an immensely gifted orphan wasting his intelligence through self-loathing brought about by extensive physical abuse during his childhood. The sheer loyalty, love and compassion between the main characters and their individual hardships.
But these aspects occur with slight modifications in hundreds of Hollywood movies. So why is it that Good Will Hunting appears consistently amid the top 100 best movies ever made? The answer is blowing in our neural pathways.
Whereas other movies might stimulate our neural reward pathways by giving us what we want, triumph over adversity (guy gets the girl, goodies kill the baddies, one man wins against a huge killer shark), research tells us that we ultimately prefer what we want wrapped up in a big surprise. What is better – a proposal of marriage known about in advance or an unexpected (but welcome) event? A present bought from a list? Or a surprise gift?
Scientists and our own real life experience concur. Our brains react more strongly ‘to the unexpectedness of stimuli instead of their pleasurable effects.’ [Science Daily] It’s what has propelled the likes of Susan Boyle and Paul Potts to meteoric international fame… because when the disparity between what we expect and what actually happens is so great, our neurons start popping on all cylinders.
It’s called situational irony.
What is Irony ?
Blackadder: Baldrick, have you no idea what “irony” is?
Baldrick: Yes, it’s like “goldy” and “bronzy” only it’s made out of iron.
That Baldrick does not understand what irony is, is not verbally ironic (even if it is hilarious). His answer is typically stupid because Baldrick is stupid. So if he had replied “Yes Blackadder. It is the clash of opposites or the juxtaposition of what is expected against what happens.” We could safely say that this was ironic (but it wouldn’t be half as funny). Irony isn’t always funny but it is, in all its forms is full of contrast and conflict. From verbal (saying the opposite of what you really mean), to dramatic (where at least one character in a scene is not aware of the truth and the audience is), and situational (where the outcome is incongruous with what was expected).
That we like dramatic irony is not surprising, since being ‘one step ahead of the game’ instills in us a sense of foresight and wisdom, whilst creating tension and anticipation for an impending revelation or shocking denouement. Verbal irony likewise adds subtle texture and oftentimes humour as well as double layered meaning to a dialogue, and brings a sense satisfaction to those who recognise and understand it. But situational irony is an even more powerful beast and whilst all forms of irony occur at various points during the Good Will Hunting, it’s situational irony which fuels our adoration.
Ironic Will Hunting
Will’s youth has been destroyed. He lives in violence and poverty. He’s the impossibility of a janitor being a world class genius. Good Will Hunting is the irony of beauty amid destruction. Love in pain. Joy in misery.
It’s Will using his one phone call to ask a beautiful rich girl out from prison (and getting her) and his demonstration that an $250,000 education can be worth less than ‘a $1.50 worth of late charges at the public library.’ It’s the sight of a fields medal winner grovelling on the floor to save a precious formula he cannot do himself from a boy who doesn’t care about the power of his own gift. It’s when Will’s ‘stupid’ buddie gives him permission to pursue his own dreams outside of Boston instead of acting in his own self interest and persuading him to stay.
Above all it’s that Will finally meets his match not with the finest therapist in all the land, but in an ill-paid community college professor battling his own problems.
Because Sean is not what we expect from a regular therapist ~
Sean: [to his class] See you Monday. We’ll be talking about Freud and why he did enough cocaine to kill a small horse.
Their first meeting ends in violence – not a traditional therapeutic method – and as their relationship progresses it becomes obvious that Sean drinks more than he should and he ‘talks more than any shrink’ Will has ever seen in his whole life. He even insults him even as it is clear that he highly respects and cares for him. He tells a story about his wife farting in bed… which is not only ironic because it is the kind of confidentiality which is unprecedented between a therapist and client and thus wholly unexpected, but on a deeper level because it was unscripted improvisation by Robin Williams. In that ironic moment life imitated art.
So whereas the reason Good Will Hunting is one of the all time movie greats is as multifaceted as Will himself, the reason it is so popular is down to basic human biology and how irony plays on our brain. It’s a movie that keeps on giving. Even now. Because as I re-watch my catalogue of Robin Williams movies following his untimely death, it’s an ironically tragic twist of fate that Good Will Hunting portrays a brilliant therapist who ends up beating his demons… played by a man who was ultimately unable to live with them.