The late, great Elliot Smith has always enjoyed a dedicated success a few notches above cult act, but for a few months in late 1997 to 1998 he had a bristly brush with the mainstream that to this day still feels surreal.
In the mid-1990s Smith was active in the Portland scene playing mostly smaller punk clubs. Director Gus Van Sant, a Portland native, attended a number of Smith’s shows and eventually befriended the upcoming singer-songwriter. Van Sant’s stock was at risk of waning around this time as he had made two excellent films featuring Portland, Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), but was looking for a commercial success after two more recent flops. Good Will Hunting was still in its nascent stages, just a script by then-newbies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, bouncing around Hollywood for a while before narrowly avoiding it-boy vulgarian Kevin Smith and landing on Van Sant’s lap. Then Van Sant asked Smith (Elliott, not Kevin, thank God) to contribute a few songs including the original “Miss Misery”, which plays a crucial role in extracting the most enduring themes from a film otherwise clumsily treading the line between life affirming and life denying.
Good Will Hunting follows the story of Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a polymathic genius who works as a janitor at MIT by day and goes boozing with his good-time buddies by night. Hunting’s untapped talent is eventually discovered by a math professor (Stellan Skarsgård) who takes Hunting under his perpetually scarfed wing as part of a deferred-prosecution agreement to keep Hunting out of jail for a dust-up with a cop. Though Hunting is seemingly elusive and confrontational, he is eventually psychoanalysed into submission by therapist Dr. Sean Maguire, sensitively played by a brink-of-tears Robin Williams. Dr. Maguire helps Hunting to navigate the decision between harnessing his formidable mind within corporate machinations or living a hidden life consisting of the occasional brawl, a little jail time and cracking a cold one with the boys. In the end, Hunting rejects both and skips town on a cross-country road trip in search of true love – a finale suggested by the king of walking-away-from-it-all characters, Terrence Malick.
Beneath the mistakable Hollywood schlock glistening on its surface, Good Will Hunting gestures at deep societal subversion, mostly belied by its warm performances and romantic conclusion. The film suggests that straight lives led by both the high IQ and the low class are decadent and unworthy. Hunting’s best friend Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck) disavows the working life as a directionless dead end. Though Hunting acknowledges this, he sees no path for his genius in the economy. In the film’s greatest scene, Hunting tells an NSA director that he couldn’t accept a job offer because seemingly any contribution would trigger a chain reaction of suffering spinning around the world from bombed-out civilians in the Middle East to wounded, jobless veterans back home in Boston. In other words, to do nothing is to waste his own life but to do anything is to doom others.
Thus, as a film about youthful angst and its incompatibility with being-in-the-world, Good Will Hunting is best seen through the lens of its signature song “Miss Misery” written and performed by Elliot Smith. The song abstractly tracks the narrative of the film, singing about how he’ll “fake it through the day/ With some Johnny Walker Red”, sabotage his relationships, and leave town. But “Miss Misery”, unlike the film itself, leans hard into the self-flagellating undercurrent by portraying the physical and psychical ease at which one slips into oblivion.
A quiet, nervous ballad in Smith’s signature style of acoustic driven rock, the song is a tight 3 minutes, 12 seconds that hits the mark with both melody and intimacy. The unveiling is in the chorus where Smith sings “Do you miss me/ Miss misery?” revealing the song to be about the narrator’s inevitable desire for misery and suspicions that he could ever sustain stability and happiness. As the song plays out in the film with the credits rolling over Hunting driving off into the distance, we are given the impression that wherever Hunting travels in life, he will always struggle with a tendency to hurl himself into darkness.
Oddly enough, the film’s narrative tensions between genuine societal abandonment and comforting mainstream affirmation are also felt in the contrast between Danny Elfman’s standard score of weepy strings and Smith’s tortured spindly voice. While Elfman’s orchestra strives for emotion, it feels a little cheap and plastic. Smith on the other hand broods with the deathly authenticity that lesser musicians only pretend to have. The two can’t coherently coexist in the same film, which is why Good Will Hunting remains unsatisfying in a wider sense (and also why the soundtrack includes a pointlessly rerecorded version of the Smith classic “Between The Bars” with a misplaced Elfman string arrangement). But the thread that Smith followed in “Miss Misery” affirms the film’s greatest strengths.
In an odd twist of aesthetic sensibilities, “Miss Misery” was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars in 1998, likely due to the song’s major label distribution and box office success. To make matters more bizarre, Smith was then asked to perform the song at the ceremony. Smith never wanted to do it but was in fact threatened that if he didn’t, someone else would. The rumored alternate was adult contemporary snoozer Richard Marx – a “universal scare tactic”, Smith speculated.
And so with his oily black locks of hair and a stuffy white suit Smith stood alone on stage playing before an intimidating audience of A-Listers and millions of television viewers. Though his nerves must have been shot, they were calmed by a pre-show pep talk by Celine Dion giving the song her stamp of approval (Dion also performed the lachrymal “My Heart Will Go On”, which unsurprisingly took home the Oscar over Smith). Smith’s performance of “Miss Misery” is clearly an awkward, truncated rendition made worse by a schmaltzy string arrangement thrown in to lend the song an ill-fitting upper-class respectability. But even so, the performance again exhibits the tension in the film between the temptations of the mainstream and noble subversion. Smith probably never would have won, but he showed up and gave the most characteristic performance his audience could want.
The sad conclusion of Smith’s life need not be inadequately retold here, but it’s worth remembering that “Miss Misery” paired with Good Will Hunting provides insight into the eminently plausible worldview that despite boundless talent and aptitude in the practical banalities of daily life one might reject it all in favour of misery’s comfortable, apathetic familiarity. Like Will Hunting’s determination to push away everyone in his life that loves him, I only wish I could say with Robin William’s Dr. Maguire: “It’s not your fault.”