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Tyler Gage vs. Will Hunting: Who Was the More Exceptional Janitor?

‘Step Up’ and ‘Good Will Hunting’ duke it out with mops, math, and elaborate dance sequences

Arturo Torres
Arturo Torres

Step Up came out in 2006. It stars Channing Tatum as Tyler Gage, a high school student who has a good heart in his chest but also is a bit of a troublemaker, which is easy to figure out because he always wears his hat backward and slouches in a chair when he talks to someone in a position of authority. He ends up working as a janitor at the prestigious Maryland School of the Arts as punishment after he and his friends vandalize the school and get caught (one of Gage’s friends actually gets caught, but Gage sacrifices himself so that the friend can get away). Eventually, Gage swaps out his janitorial duties for dance duty with Nora Clark, who needs a partner for the big Senior Showcase because her original partner got injured. Gage, it turns out, is an exceptional dancer.

Good Will Hunting (1997) came out nearly a decade before Step Up. It stars Matt Damon as Will Hunting, a 20-year-old laborer who has a good heart in his chest but is also a bit of a troublemaker, which is easy to figure out because he hangs out with guys who say lots of curse words. He works as a janitor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology to fulfill his parole requirements. Hunting swaps out his janitorial duties to be a protégé to a professor at the school who recognizes that Hunting, as it turns out, is an exceptional mathematician.

I was super surprised when I realized that Step Up is actually Good Will Hunting 2. Each guy has turbulent identity problems, has girlfriend problems, has come up through his state’s foster care system, has an entourage that he quarrels with, etc.

But I’m interested in a different question:

Who was the more exceptional janitor, Tyler Gage at the Maryland School of the Arts or Will Hunting at MIT?

Category 1

Who is the better actual janitor?

Neither Tyler nor Will seems especially interested in being a good janitor, which is understandable since Tyler is only there because he has to be and Will is only there because he wants to be around other people who are as smart as he secretly is. Tyler does his janitorial work (changing out fluorescent light bulbs, carrying bags of trash to the dumpster, etc.) in the most annoyed, most halfhearted way possible. The only time he doesn’t appear to hate it is when he just stands on a ladder and watches Nora hold auditions with underclassmen for several minutes. He’s working at maybe 55, 60 percent janitor pace.

Will, though, is even more inefficient. There are only two scenes in which he does any actual janitorial duties. In the first, early in the movie, he waxes the floor. He appears to do a good job, and had he continued on in that manner then he’d have won this category easily. But the second time we see him at work he’s solving an equation written on a chalkboard in a hallway while he’s supposed to be mopping. Adding stuff to a thing seems antithetical to the entire janitorial premise (mostly, it seems like you’re supposed to remove things when you’re a janitor), so that’s bad.

Worse still, when MIT mathematician Gerald Lambeau sees Will writing on the board and begins walking toward him, Will immediately abandons his mop and bucket so he can escape, and abandoning your mop and bucket is not a thing a janitor should ever do. Double worse still, when Lambeau accuses Will of graffiti-ing up the equation, Will turns and shouts, “Ay, fuck you!” as he disappears around a corner, and I know for sure that that is not an appropriate response. He’s not a great employee. Let’s call him a 40 percent effective janitor. Tyler wins.

Winner: Tyler Gage

Score: 1–0, Tyler

Category 2

Whose exceptional talent is more impressive with respect to janitoring?

I would absolutely rather be very good at dancing than be a supergenius at math. I know it’d probably be more profitable to be a super math genius, but the one thing I know about being a super math genius is that that shit never seems to work out all that great for the person who’s the genius. John Nash went crazy. Ted Kaczynski went crazy. Kurt Gödel went crazy. On and on. (Gödel is my favorite example here. He developed this fear that he was going to be poisoned, so he refused to ever eat anything that wasn’t prepared by his wife. When he was 71, she was hospitalized for six months. During that time, she wasn’t able to make his food for him. Do you know what happened? He goddamn literally starved to death, that’s what happened. Can you believe that?)

That said, I will admit that it’s little more than a personal preference. Measured objectively, it seems very obvious that Will is a far more impressive mathematician than Tyler is a dancer. Consider these two facts:

  1. Tyler became Nora’s dance partner after her original partner, Andrew, injured his ankle during class one day. She trained with Tyler and trained with Tyler and trained with Tyler. And he was very good. But not so good that when Andrew returned, Nora didn’t try to swap Tyler back out for him. Measure that up against:
  2. Will was such an imposing force mathematically that he absolutely obliterated Professor Lambeau’s entire sense of self-worth, no small task considering he is described by Robin Williams’s character, Dr. Sean Maguire, as “a mathematical god,” one of only a handful of people on the planet who’d ever won a Fields Medal, math’s version of the Nobel Prize.

Tyler wasn’t able to prove he was the best male dancer in a high school. Will held dominion over all of math, which means he held dominion over the entire known universe. And if he holds dominion over the known universe, then I think it’s safe to assume he holds dominion over sweeping.

Winner: Will Hunting

Score: 1–1

Category 3

Who looks more handsome while he does the thing he is exceptional at?

Will has a built-in advantage in this category. The problem is that when Tyler dances, he’s always wearing clothes that are so big and baggy they end up subtracting from his overall handsomeness. All Will’s doing when he uses his exceptional talent is scribbling on a mirror with a wax pencil. Sometimes, he doesn’t even have to do that. Sometimes all he has to do is just stare at some numbers and smolder, which is always a good thing to do when your face looks like 26-year-old Matt Damon’s face, you know what I’m saying? If I looked like Matt Damon, I’d just fucking smolder all day. That’d be my whole workday.

I’d wake up at 7 a.m., start smoldering, then I wouldn’t stop until, like, 5 p.m. or whenever I left the office. I’d smolder clean through my lunch break. I’m talking 10 solid hours of smoldering. “How was work today, honey?” my wife would ask when I got home. “Tough day,” I’d say, as I plopped down on the couch. “Yeah?” she’d ask, as she sat down next to me, but she’d say it in that way that transforms “yeah” from a tiny word into a back rub in that way that only very empathetic people can. “Yeah,” I’d say. “Lot of smoldering?” she’d ask, genuinely. “So much,” I’d respond, a little frustrated. “How much?” she’d ask. I’d lean back and close my eyes and put my hands on my head. “Look, it’s been a long day. I don’t really wanna talk about it,” I’d say. “I’m just trying to connect,” she’d say. “Just leave it,” I’d say, but I’d say it a little too curtly.

She wouldn’t say anything back. She’d get up walk into the kitchen. I’d huff. Then I’d get up and walk over. I’d put my hand on her waist. I wouldn’t be able to see her face, but I’d be able to tell she was crying. “Look, it’s just …” and I’d struggle to find the words. “I don’t know. This smoldering … it’s really getting to me.” She’d turn around but she’d still be looking at the ground. “I’m sorry,” I’d say. “You said you were gonna try to be better,” she’d say. “I know,” I’d say, and I’d apologize again. I’d ask if she forgave me. She’d say she didn’t know. “Come on,” I’d say, and I’d bend down a little so I could get under her eyes and catch her stare. I’d smile. “OK,” she’d say. Then she’d look up at me. And I’d hit her with the best fucking smolder you ever saw.

Winner: Will Hunting

Score: 2–1, Will

Category 4

Who’s better at being in a relationship while being an exceptional janitor?

You have to go with the sure bet here. The last we see of Tyler and his girlfriend, Nora, they’ve just danced together in her Senior Showcase and done it well enough that (1) Nora has earned herself a job with a professional dance troupe, and (2) the headmaster of the Maryland School of the Arts has decided to open up a roster spot for Tyler so he can transfer from the terrible inner city school he currently attends. They hug and they kiss and that’s the end of the movie.

The last we see of Will and his girlfriend, Skylar, they get into a gigantic fight because she says he’s a coward and a liar and he flies off the rail and starts screaming and finally tells her about all the terrible things that happened to him as a child and she says all he has to do is tell her he doesn’t love her and she’ll stop trying to be with him and so he tells her that he doesn’t love her and she has a breakdown and it’s just awful and gut-wrenching. They share a phone call later and Will tells her that he’s going to take some well-to-do math job (because he thinks that’s what she wanted him to do) and then she tries to tell him that she loves him again and he stonewalls again (“… Take care”) and, bang, she’s 2-for-2 on getting atomized by him.

The movie ends with him driving from Boston to California to be with Skylar. The assumption is that she’s going to take him back, and were I to guess I’d say yes, she’ll take him back. But there’s at least a small possibility that he pulls up and she’s like, “You know what? Fuck you.” And then that’s it.

So Tyler wins this category because it’s one of those A Bird In The Hand situations.

Winner: Tyler Gage

Score: 2–2

Category 5

Who has the more profound awakening?

Tyler Gage, product of Maryland’s lackluster child protective services, realizes that he wants his life to have value after his best friend’s younger brother is killed. Will Hunting, product of Massachusetts’ lackluster child protective services, realizes that it’s not his fault after he and Sean share stories of the horrific child abuse they’d experienced.

Neither is light fare. It’s super close. But it has to be Will here, right? I think it has to be Will here. It definitely has to be Will here. It’s Will here.

Winner: Will Hunting

Final Score: 3–2, Will

So, the question again:

Who was the more exceptional janitor, Tyler Gage at the Maryland School of the Arts or Will Hunting at MIT?

Will Hunting was. Will Hunting was the more exceptional janitor, 3–2.