PIF and EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum

Of all the bad reviews, and there were many, some people took particular exception to this one. Perhaps because Entertainment Weekly had a national readership :

October 27, 2000

Entertainment Weekly
Review by Lisa Schwarzbaum

Pay It Forward – Genre: Romance, Drama; Starring: Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Kevin Spacey; Director: Mimi Leder; Author: Catherine Ryan Hyde; Runtime (in minutes): 123; MPAA Rating: PG-13; Distributor: Warner Bros.

You are a person who doesn’t order coffee with milk anymore; it’s latte you want, and make it grande. You don’t eat spaghetti and meat sauce when you can dine on pasta bolognese. And you’re not just busy — you’re multitasking. Congratulations. You may just be enough of a trendpatsy to embrace the uplift shoved in your face by Pay It Forward.This unceasingly manipulative entertainment, in which Haley Joel Osment plays a bird-boned secular saint, may honestly be intended as a spiritual experience for people who are bored by the same-old, same-old religious and ethical concepts of decency, generosity, and good deeds. What it is, though, is reprehensible — not only for trotting out the most shameless cliches of emotional and physical damage since the old daytime-TV misery contest Queen for a Day, but for then blackmailing audiences into joining the let’s-be-nice ”movement,” as if in penance for the sin of critics’ heartless skepticism.

(I’ll calm down now, but not before I say this: Pay It Forward gladhands so brazenly — for awards, for publicity, for love — that although the press materials request critical collusion in not revealing the ending, I am going to reveal the ending. Later. In my own contribution toward paying it forward, however, I’ll give fair warning before the spoiler.)

So. For those who think ”a thousand points of light” is so one George Bush generation ago, or who don’t know from mitzvahs and Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Charity, Trevor McKinney (Osment) has a cool new plan: Do something for somebody who needs something but can’t do it himself. Then help two others. Then each of those three should help three more. And so on. And so on. Pretty soon everyone will be swaying to ”We Are the World.”

This is a breakthrough idea only if the do-gooder is 11 years old, with an absent, alcoholic, abusive father (Jon Bon Jovi) and a mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt), who works as a dolled-up waitress at a Las Vegas topless joint, then hits the bottle, dingy drunk, during off-hours. Young Trevor, with Osment’s vulnerable shoulder blades and squooshable face of sad patience, could use a moral road map to rescue him from feelings of powerlessness, and when his new seventh-grade social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), exhorts the class to think of an idea to change the world, then put it into effect, Trevor is enflamed by the possibilities. (Flames, sorry, bad word: Eugene bears the angry, over-smooth scars of fire damage — the cause, you can be sure, is deeply tragic. And with his face streaked and plasticized so that it looks spin-dried, Spacey putties over most of his own more interesting, actorly sharp edges.)

Pay It Forward uses the chain-letter approach to forward the plot as well as to spread the good karma. Trevor’s virtuous kindness affects Arlene, who affects Eugene; others sucker-punched by an angel include Las Vegas’ most polite drug addict (James Caviezel), an aggressive journalist gentled by a stranger’s gift of a new Jaguar (Jay Mohr), and an old bag lady more hippie than hapless (Angie Dickinson!). Meanwhile, working from a clean script by Leslie Dixon (1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair) that does what it can with the muck of the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde on which it’s based, director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) pushes and pushes and pushes the emotional throttle without respite. The movie is hustled not only forward but also into overdrive, especially during Helen Hunt’s high-pitched Lost Weekend scenes and codas of remorse. Badly bleached ”waitress hair” and Julia Roberts’ cast-off cleavage-popping Erin Brockovich wardrobe bring out the actress’ shriller instincts, and when a forlorn Trevor yells at a pickled Arlene, ”I hate the way you are, I hate that you’re my mother!” Hunt goes near apoplectic with Motivation, first slapping the kid, then covering her mouth in movie-style horror.

WARNING: BIG SPOILER COMING ONE LITTLE PARAGRAPH FROM NOW.

And then, at the end, something heinous happens to defeat even the softest of touches, the happiest of sobbers. STOP RIGHT NOW, FOR GOD’S SAKE STOP IF YOU VALUE SURPRISE OVER ANALYSIS. STOP IF YOU ARE HAPPIER BELIEVING CRITICS ARE CYNICS THAN THAT SOME MOVIES CYNICALLY TRY TO SELL MELODRAMATIC PAP.

Trevor dies. He’s doing his third good deed, and he’s knifed. By another kid. Do you see? Do you see how dangerous it is to be decent in this lousy world? And yet look how inspiring it is for a child to die, because his martyrdom makes the Jaguar-driving journalist’s story — the one about the Las Vegas boy who walks in the path of righteousness — even newsier. Pretty soon strangers are leaving mounds of flowers, à la Princess Diana, at Arlene’s modest waitress-wage home! They’re lighting candles! They’re feeling cleansed in the blood of the lamb! Haley Joel Osment died for our sins!

Well, that and for Oscar consideration. D

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Mail from our readers
Check out letters from those who agreed with us, and those who didn’t, on our ”Pay It Forward” review, ”Billy Elliot,” and more
by EW Staff

Critic Lisa Schwarzbaum’s less-than-glowing review of Pay It Forward received a staggering 73 letters, most of them irate. Here’s a sampling — and her response.

Regarding Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review of Pay It Forward: How many dogs did she kick and how many babies did she steal candy from on her way in to work to write it?
Linda Biesecker
Apple Valley, Minn.

Lisa Schwarzbaum’s Pay It Forward piece was one of the most uninformative, biased, mean-spirited reviews I’ve ever read. She clearly missed the point of a brilliant and important movie. Pay It Forward is neither manipulative nor over-the-top, and Schwarzbaum’s ineptness in conveying what the movie really portrayed is unfair to EW’s readers.
Sarah Topy
Columbus, Ohio

As a faithful reader of EW, I was surprised I hadn’t heard Jim Carrey had been replaced by Lisa Schwarzbaum to play the Grinch. I have more than my share of cynicism and I can appreciate someone being annoyed with heartstrings being manipulated, but jeez… to read a review that was so angry was just ridiculous.
Elizabeth Anderson
Mission Viejo, Calif.

I was flipping through EW while waiting in line to see Pay It Forward and I came across Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review. Thanks for the spoiler warning, Lisa, and thanks too for an insightful, fair, and spot-on review of the pile of drivel known as Pay It Forward. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but this article has convinced me: I’m going to name my first born (male or female) after Lisa Schwarzbaum!
Michelle Fearnley
Denver

Why do film critics feel the need to sometimes be downright nasty about a film? Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review of Pay It Forward was disturbing. Yes, I have seen the film, and yes, I was disappointed by the ending, but Pay It Forward in no way deserved such a venom-filled review. Such gratuitous hatred for a film is just unsettling to me.
Marc Bess
Cherryville, N.C.

I’m outraged, appalled, and disgusted by the fact that Lisa Schwarzbaum gave away the ending to Pay It Forward. It’s bad enough that she graded this moving and sweet film with a D, but then she added insult to injury by revealing the ending. Once again ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY has become ”Ruin the Surprise Weekly.”
Brenda Wilson
Dover, N.J.

EW has published articles lamenting the slew of garbage Hollywood seems to be spilling out. Then here comes a morality play about a so-called movement unwittingly started by a kid’s school project that is ripped apart by the most appallingly reviewed and written article that I have ever read. Is Lisa Schwarzbaum so skeptical that she reveled in shredding what [others] viewed as an uplifting film despite the tears welling in our eyes?
Tom Cartledge
Atlanta

Oh, how I wish I had listened to you when you advised me to stay away from Pay It Forward. But I foolishly ignored your warning, and boy, am I sorry. The movie would have been okay, if not for the ending, which ruins the entire movie. I am a sucker for tearjerkers, but this was just way too over-the-top even for me. In an effort to pay it forward, if I can convince three people not to see this movie, and they can each convince three people, and they can each convince three people, I will have done my duty!
Rosalie Smith
San Diego

Maybe you should give Lisa Schwarzbaum a vacation. I’ve never seen anyone get so worked up over a movie before. Revealing the ending of the film — just because it pissed her off — was a bit immature, yet incredibly funny. Take a deep breath, Lisa, it’s only a job.
Deb Ronca
Somerset, N.J.

Give Lisa Schwarzbaum a raise! Her review of Pay It Forward was the funniest thing I’ve read in your magazine in a long time. I haven’t seen the movie, and yes, I read the spoiler because I was enjoying the review so much I couldn’t stop. Thanks, Lisa! You should get worked up more often; it makes for great reading!
Carolyn Sievert
Plano, Tex.

OUR CRITIC RESPONDS
Calling critics with whom one disagrees names is a time-honored activity for passionate filmgoers; now let’s broaden the conversation. Topic A: The tearjerker or feel-good ”message” movie that jerks our tears by rubbing onions in our eyes — then lectures us about how we ought to feel grateful because there are poor people in the world who can’t afford onions so let’s all start planting gardens — is the movie that covertly thinks we’re all too dumb to feel grateful otherwise. Topic B: Like people who, despite reasonable warnings, break their necks by recklessly speeding down mountainsides because the activity looked cool on a TV car commercial, folks who ignore spoiler warnings and then complain that the ending is spoiled are… just naturally injury prone. Discuss.
— Lisa Schwarzbaum

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