Pay It Forward

Pay it Forward by Mimi Leder is meant to be another in what I
take to be a new series of heart-tugging, inspirational tales like Music of
the Heart
or American Beauty (which also starred Kevin Spacey) that
derive their oomph from the assumption that life in America is pretty grim and
miserable but that can be perked up at the margins for those of us who are stuck
in it by the vision of a few really good and sensitive (and liberal) people like
Kevin Spacey. Or, as it might be, Meryl Streep. Here, at any rate, it is the
tremulous Mr. Spacey, and, as if he were not already good and sensitive enough,
Ms Leder’s film, set in Las Vegas,
makes his character, a middle school social studies teacher called Eugene
Simonet, a burn victim (wait till you hear how he got those burns!) before whom
Arlene McKinney, the allegedly tarty drunk and single mother played by Helen
Hunt, just melts.

The two meet when Arlene’s son,
Trevor (Haley Joel Osment), a student of
Simonet’s, gets an A on his homework
assignment to come up with an idea to change the world. This is the idea of the
title: do a good deed for three people and tell them to
“pay it
forward” (that is, instead of paying
it back) by themselves doing a good deed for three more people. Soon the
geometrical progression will mean that good deeds are being done everywhere and
the world will no longer appear (as we are asked to believe it does even to this
seventh grader) like
It is this assumption that the film is most insistent about. Poor burned Eugene,
poor drunk and struggling
Arlene—everybody, in fact, is only
just one more disappointment away from despair. Sooner or later everybody
concludes, as the black thief who is one of several low-lifes redeemed by
Trevor’s idea puts it, that
“It’s like the world is a
s***hole…It’s like some cosmic Aristotle

Those of my readers who ignored my recommendation and went to see the awful
American Beauty will recognize this theatrical pessimism as necessary
set-up for its contrived inspirational theme. Here, however, the ideological
roots are even more obvious. Among the conventions of this budding genre, the
idea of “changing the
world” is a constant and generally
depends, as is not often enough remarked, on the assumption that the world is
susceptible to the kind of changing that has traditionally been preached by
revolutionaries and ideologues. It was Karl Marx who first put this notion in
people’s heads when he said that
“philosophers have explained the
world; the point, however, is to change
it.” Since his time, this idea has
worked its way down to mere politicians, who are now expected to pay lip service
to the concept at least, and to their west-coast brethren in the entertainment
business, the moviemakers of Hollywood.

The Contender, reviewed last week, could perhaps also be included in
this genre, though generally speaking the movies fight shy of making a hero of a
politician. Why take on those problems of verisimilitude when you can just cook
up another superhero? Anyway, for inspirational purposes,
it’s hard to beat a hero
who’s a tragically disfigured social
studies teacher, or a struggling a single-mom (single-mom heroines are already
so ubiquitous that they must outnumber every other kind by now) victim of
spousal abuse or the desperately cute little boy from The Sixth Sense.
Alhough all of them are ostensibly apolitical, the catalogue of their various
grievances against the world is suspiciously p.c. and owes a lot to dat
ol’ debbil
culture, which is never mentioned but lurks around every corner.

True enough, it is easy to sympathize with poor Trevor for the rough time he
has of it with his mother working two jobs and absent most of the time and a dad
(Jon Bon Jovi) whose occasional visits he dreads. It is meant to be easy to
sympathize with him. Accordingly, Miss Leder and her screenwriter, Leslie Dixon
(adapting a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde) lay it on with a trowel, adding
domestic violence and drunkenness to the brew and making good use of images of
the seamier side of Las Vegas. This is represented not only by the bars and
casinos where Arlene works but also by a nether-netherland of junkies and bums
and bag ladies who congregate at a suspiciously convenient dump with a
third-world standard of squalor. Here, obviously, is the s***hole world that
everybody is supposed to be trying so hard not to believe in.

Do you get the feeling that the deck is being stacked for us? Well, watch on.
I haven’t even mentioned that the
middle school where Trevor is a seventh-grader and Mr Simonet teaches is the
kind of place where the kids have to go through metal detectors (not very
effective ones, it should be added) to get to class and that the remarkably
fresh-faced and well-behaved boys and girls, barring a couple of bullies, live
in daily fear of their lives. There are no prizes for guessing where this
appallingly manipulative movie is taking us, and its final scenes are so maudlin
that you would have thought they would bring the flame of embarrassment even to
Kevin Spacey’s cheeks. Oooh! Have I
just been dreadfully insensitive? So will you be, I predict, if you go see this

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