The great challenge of American film and literature is this: the protagonist must disclose powerful personal stories of past abuse or crushing disappointments or betrayals to win the audience’s sympathy (and excuse his addictions, infidelities, and other bad behavior) but telling all this to the object of his or her affections would come off as self-pitying. The only plausible venue for this type of disclosure is the therapist’s couch. But in the popular imagination, only a weak effeminate pussy would voluntarily become so vulnerable as to disclose such details, so it must be dramatized as coerced. Somehow, we must create a dramatic situation in which the protagonist can simultaneously disclose his vulnerabilities and mock the inquisitorial mind.
Here’s the problem, and it’s not a small one: no psychiatrist or psychologist worth his salt would waste a minute of time on a patient that doesn’t want to cooperate. It is a bedrock principle of psychotherapy that you can’t provide therapy to someone against his will.
And what therapist would even want to try?
But what if it’s a condition of probation, or shared custody of the children, or a job? The problem does not change. If a patient behaved the way Will Hunting behaves in “Good Will Hunting”, the therapist would almost certainly wish him luck in future endeavors and tell him he has willfully thrown away his probation or the job or the custody arrangement or what have you.
And so we have “A Clockwork Orange”, “Good Will Hunting” and “Shawshank Redemption” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Gangs of New York”, “Antwone Fisher”, and perhaps the worst of all, “Reign Over Me” (in which Liv Tyler played the psychiatrist– seriously) and so on. It’s become an extremely tiresome trope, a sure indicator that a film writer has run out of ideas or is concerned that his audience is so stupid they won’t get the point of the story.
(An additional trope in many of these films is the therapist who cares so much that he or she chases down the reluctant patient and begs them to receive therapy. Seriously. The audience is invited to project themselves into a character so lovable that professional psychiatrist and psychologist will abandon personal schedules and work obligations in order to track them down and drag them into their healing arms.)
“The Sopranos” toys with the issue and frequently straddles the line. Tony has a real problem: panic attacks. He stops seeing Dr. Melfi for a while but the panic attacks resume. He tries a different psychiatrist, who proves ineffectual. He returns to Dr. Melfi on just barely believable terms, though he frequently blurts out something like, “I’ve had enough of this crap”. The audience projects itself into a character who thinks he’s smarter than a psychiatrist.
What’s really going on in these scenes is the writer is trying to show that he is smarter than a psychologist or psychiatrist.
The most contemptible examples of this are those mildly enlightened films that pretend to have a real theme, an idea, an enlightened perspective on something, like “Reign Over Me” and “Good Will Hunting”. “Good Will Hunting” lays the groundwork for the millions of Trump followers who are convinced that those educated elites are really no smarter than the average janitor (played by the charismatic Matt Damon). But it would not be an asset to the character to have Will admit to how much harm he has suffered from his traumatic upbringing unless he is compelled to admit it; thus, the kludge plot mechanism of having his probation depend on attending therapy sessions with the utterly charming and sexy Robin Williams– who, nevertheless, threatens to kill him at their first session after Will makes light of Dr. Maguire’s wife. (And the probation? Another tired trope: Will was involved in a gang fight. Because he is a bad boy? Oh no– one of the gang members used to abuse Will when he was a child. Hollywood loves bad boys but not if they’re really bad, just as they love titillation, but not real, honest sex.)
I used to work in a children’s mental health centre. I can tell you that almost none of the psychiatrists or psychologists in these films approach believability. Dr. Melfi in “The Sopranos” is particularly inept. Now, I’m not saying that psychiatrists or psychologists can actually be smart and effective. But they do have extensive training and they will have some idea of how they are going to approach the task at hand, even if their approach is contrived or transparent or just plain ridiculous. Dr. Maguire in “Good Will Hunting” is supposed to win our respect by showing how tough he is when Will mocks his (deceased, unknown to Will) wife.
It’s not admirable: it’s downright stupid.