Ethics & Public Policy Center

Pay It Forward

Published in EPPC Online on October 1, 2000



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 “s***.” 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 s***.”

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 “patriarchal” 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 movie.

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