Moral Fixation

In ‘Pay It Forward,’ no good deed lets the audience go unpunished.
By Libby Gelman-Waxner

PremiereLibby2Politicians, especially around election time, tend to get all hot and bothered about the explicit sex and mindless violence in Hollywood movies; personally, I get a lot more worried when Hollywood starts taking a sincere interest in emotionally uplifting stories about our common humanity. This month I saw Pay It Forward, and it’s probably the most sadistic movie in years. Every character in it lugs around a season’s worth of daytime-talk-show syndromes; the movie includes everything from a suicidal, unemployed heroin addict to Angie Dickinson as an alcoholic homeless woman with a few just-for-fun braids added to her matted yet still platinum hairdo. The story centers on Haley Joel Osment as an nine-year-old living with his trampy, alcoholic, cocktail-waitress mom in Las Vegas. The movie is obsessed with showcasing carefully art-directed homeless encampments in the shadow of the deluxe Vegas hotels and casinos; it reminded me of my favorite TV show of all time, something called 2000 Malibu Road, in which a dewy Drew Barrymore was shocked to discover a homeless section of Malibu. Maybe an upcoming film will reveal the heartbreak of those Upper East Side Manhattanites who can’t afford a place in the Hamptons: the second-home-less.

Haley’s new seventh-grade social studies teacher is played by Kevin Spacey, and while Kevin is a swell actor, he always seems slightly ironic and evil, so I wondered about the public school that would hire him; I imagined that the principal would be James Woods and that Christopher Walken would teach girls phys ed. Kevin assigns his class to come up with an idea that will change the world and to put that idea into action. Weirdly , none of the kids ask if they have to make a good change or if they could just plot a successful terrorist attack and get an A. Haley comes up with the “pay it forward” plan: He will do a major nice thing for three different people, asking in exchange only that they each do a major nice thing for three more people, until, presumably, the world becomes so perfect that hundreds of citizens will start banging on my door, begging to vacuum or organize my spice rack. Haley’s idea starts to catch on, but no one ever asks, after they complete their three selfless acts, if they’re all done – could Mother Teresa have taken a really early retirement? Haley also never mentions the coercive nature of his scheme: If you only do, say, two good deeds, does one really yucky thing happen to you? Haley’s personal campaign includes fixing up Helen Hunt, as his aggressively bleached-blond mom, with Kevin; Haley is sort of Pollyanna as a pimp.

Helen is not only an alcoholic, but she’s also a battered wife, and it’s hinted that she was molested as a child. Kevin is a heavily scarred burn victim and the child of an abusive dad, so I kept waiting for him and Helen to tote up their collective trauma points and see if they had enough to win the lawn furniture. Since they’re both playing emotionally disabled working-class people, Helen and Kevin do a super-intense, ultra- yearning kind of acting, so it’s like watching two people who care way too much about finding a lost contact lens. Since almost everyone in the movie is white-trashy, their homes are photographed to look incredibly messy and ugly; every wall seems to be painted either avocado green or dirt brown, and Helen is also addicted to collecting. refrigerator magnets. When Helen has a bad day, she gets to go on a classic bender, ransacking all of her jam-packed cabinets for those hidden, emergency bottles of booze, flinging around boxes of cereal and Tide. The whole audience chanted, “Look in the tacky chandelier!” until Helen finally heard us.

One of Haley’s other good deeds is to try to protect a little classmate from getting bullied by what appears to be a three-tyke Latino gang; the classmate is also an asthmatic, and there’s another asthmatic character featured in an emergency-room scene – this is a two-inhaler movie. Haley can’t get the meanies to layoff, but he never seems to ask Kevin or anyone’s parents to help out. Haley is amazing, but in this flick he has to playa junior-high-saint-with-a-backpack; if the character were my child, I would take him aside and say, “You know, sweetheart, there’s a good reason why you don’t have any friends.”

Finally, all sorts of terrible things happen, and Kevin has to comfort Helen, only being comforting is not really a Spacey specialty, so there are a lot of quick cuts of Helen putting her head gingerly on Kevin’s shoulder, while a song with the lyric “calling all angels” pounds on the sound track. Then the couple goes outside to find their house surrounded by mounds of plastic-wrapped bouquets and hundreds of people holding a candlelight vigil, and the moment is staged to recall the scene outside Buckingham Palace after Princess Diana died, or all teddy bears and balloons tied to fences at Columbine. Somehow I’d rather see Bruce Willis mow down hundreds of innocent bystanders with an Uzi – that would seem more wholesome than watching Pay It Forward host a Hallmark grief orgy. Even the people on Jerry Springer are a lot more fun than Kevin and Helen; they may not have all their teeth, but at least they’re rambunctious and don’t keep angling for a hug.

The next movie I saw was truly filthy and depraved: the absolutely sensational Quills. It’s about the Marquis de Sade, who’s busily, gleefully writing and publishing dirty books while he’s locked up in a French madhouse; this crude insane asylum comes off as way more humane and tempting than any of the Vegas tract homes in Pay It Forward, and Geoffrey Rush, as the Marquis, is a far more inspiring, stylish teacher than Kevin. Kate Winslet plays a laundress, and she’s always delectably straining her corsets, especially when she’s reading the Marquis’s latest pages. Joaquin Phoenix is the good-hearted priest who runs the joint, and he’s very Montgomery Clift – he makes spiritual torment totally glamorous. Joaquin has the hots for Kate, Michael Caine plays a nasty doctor with a child bride, and all of the other patients have that perfect period loon look – in movies about 18th-century madhouses, there’s always going to be a drooling bald guy with a misshapen head, a dwarf, and plenty of folks just stumbling around in tattered night-shirts, babbling away. The movie is superbly written by Douglas Wright and directed by Philip Kaufman, and I think they should both be awarded custody of Haley Joel Osment.

Eventually, all sorts of horrendous things happen in Quills, including vicious murders, necrophilia, and one scene which I found particularly wrenching, when the Marquis’s beautiful antiques are carted out of his cell. In Pay It Forward, bad things happen to good people, but in Quills, depraved things happen to everyone, and it’s so much more fascinating and delightful. Pay It Forward is like a stern lecture on sin, delivered by an agent on his cell phone, but Quills is like a fairy tale told by the Marquis, so it’s way more honest. Congress should definitely reprimand Hollywood for making Haley try to save the planet; Quills, on the other hand, should be shown in every junior high homeroom, because the kids would sure stay awake until lunch. Maybe if there’s a voucher system, I’ll just send my children to a French loony bin, because that’s responsible parenting, if you ask me.

Premiere, January 2001
If You Ask Me by Libby Gelman-Waxner
Illustration by Robert De Michiell