Thursday, April 7, 2011

Pay It Forward.

Pay It Forward (Mimi Leder, 2000)

Category: Sad movie about doing nice things. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the saying goes. It’s a dumb saying. If there actually were a road to hell, it would probably be paved with fire and brimstone or something like that, not me offering to walk an old lady across the street. More often than not, people who actually have good intentions follow through on them and do good things. It’s not that hard. The saying is sometimes used in a cynical way to criticize people who try to do big things and fail, and that’s just lame. Or it’s used to absolve people who never really had good intentions in the first place. I’m not having it. I don’t know why this movie is sad yet, but I bet it’s not because Haley Joel Osment did nice things for people. I bet it has something to do with Kevin Spacey and his scarred face. (Note: at the moment these are the only two things I know about this movie. Hey, let’s add this to the famous blog category, sad film about freaks.)

My familiarity with this issue: We can all agree that charity is essential. No matter how selfish people can be, I think most people are mindful of that (especially celebrities), and generally support at least one charity that is important to them. The concept of paying it forward is a nice, touchy-feely small-scale method of charity that has been around for a long time. It’s also something I’m not sure I could ever feasibly do. For example, I would love to pay for someone’s groceries at the supermarket one day, but I don’t know how I would actually do it. Would I do it for the person behind me in line? The person in front of me? Some random person in another aisle? How would I choose? Would I feel obligated to choose a woman, or a minority, or just someone who seemed less fortunate than me? And how could I judge that without being totally racist? (Choosing the right person is actually really important. I live in Washington, DC, a city that is full of really really terrible people. Imagine accidentally offering to pay for Donald Rumsfeld’s groceries!)

And THEN once I'd decided the object of my forward paying, I’d have to go up to some stranger in a public place, and say something to the cashier like, “I intend to pay for this person’s groceries.” (A statement, which if said to me, would cause some degree of alarm. I’d think, who is this person, and why are they doing this? Do they want something out of me? Do they expect me to give them something in return? Are they going to follow me to my car?) Just imagine the awkwardness of that first moment, saying “Excuse me” and injecting yourself into someone else’s life, seeing the look of confusion on their face and the cashier’s face, and having people in the neighboring aisles turn their heads because they can sense that something unusual is happening. And then, under this pressure, having to explain your intentions in a concise way, without seeming like a weirdo, while contemplating the chance that this person will misunderstand and react adversely, possibly calling over a supermarket security guard and causing an uncomfortable scene. (And add to that the possibility, especially prevalent if you have indeed picked a minority, that the person does not speak English and won’t understand you, causing you to revert to hand signals and pointing at your wallet and then her groceries and trying to communicate by loudly saying "PAY" and "ME" and "KEVIN SPACEY" and so on.)

All of this put together constitutes a mental barrier that is impossible for me to overcome. And I’m a nice person! So if you’re asking me to pay it forward in any way that involves social interaction, I’m going to have to decline.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Young Trevor McKinney, troubled by his mother's alcoholism and fears of his abusive but absent father, is caught up by an intriguing assignment from his new social studies teacher, Mr. Simonet. The assignment: think of something to change the world and put it into action. Trevor conjures the notion of paying a favor not back, but forward – repaying good deeds not with payback, but with new good deeds done to three new people. Trevor's efforts to make good on his idea bring a revolution not only in the lives of himself, his mother and his physically and emotionally scarred teacher [Editor's Note: ooooo symbolism], but in those of an ever-widening circle of people completely unknown to him.”

What I thought of the movie: This was an interesting one for me going in. I’d heard all manner of bad things, including a money quote from FOTB Steve Isaac that I will share later. So I figured I wouldn’t like it. But I had hoped that my dislike would be more in the style of The Last Song (namely, hilarious anger) and not The Lovely Bones (actual anger). For most of the movie, it was the former. The ending was the latter. Oh my God was it ever. But we’ll get to that.

So the movie’s about 11-year-old Haley Joel Osment, playing against type as a non-AIDS patient. (Think about it.) His mom, Helen Hunt, is a bleached-blonde Las Vegas-type trying to stop drinking/being a terrible mother, and his dad's not around anymore. His horribly disfigured and smarmy social studies teacher, Kevin Spacey, assigns his class an “extra credit” project wherein they have to do something to try and change the world. So HJO invents paying it forward (which has already been invented). He helps a homeless drug addict played by Jesus Jim Caviezel, and when that doesn’t take, he tries to get his teacher and his mom together. Because that's what you do when you don't have a dad. You'll take anyone, even a holier-than-thou burn victim freak who obnoxiously uses big words like "exigent" to bleached-blonde stripper types. (I like Kevin Spacey, but this role probably wasn't a reach. Bit snooty, that fella.)

In another plotline, whose timeline is not entirely clear, a truly detestable reporter played by the truly detestable Jay Mohr gets it paid forward to him. (Side note: how has Jay Mohr gotten all this work? What is his appeal? He seems like a douchebag in all of his onscreen roles and I can't imagine he's any different offscreen. He was in those Pepsi commercials that I hated. He's loud and likes sports and beer and stuff. Does he appeal to men? Women? Other douchebags? I just don't see the Mohr market.) Some lawyer gives him his Jaguar (WHAT) after his car is wrecked. (It’s important to note that his car is wrecked when a suspected criminal crashes into it while fleeing a hostage situation, which he is able do because Jay Mohr DISTRACTS THE POLICEMEN who are trying to negotiate with him. This is what I mean when I say that it’s important choose the right person to pay it forward to.) Jay Mohr, obviously bewildered by this, tries to figure out how this whole thing started, and spends his scenes investigating and traveling back up the paying it forward pyramid scheme diagram until he reaches HJO.

A brief digression on the film’s casual racism and stupidity: the lawyer who gives Jay Mohr his car tells him the story of how he was paid forward to from with how (I give up). The story is as follows: late one night, his daughter is having a severe asthma attack so he takes her to the emergency room. Of course, late nights in the ER are often busy, and people have to be taken in order of importance (obviously), so they have to wait, but it’s a really bad asthma attack and he’s very worried for his daughter’s health. A nurse enters the room and calls on a black guy who has been stabbed in the arm. The lawyer protests, saying he and asthma girl have been there longer (which anyone who has ever been to an ER knows is not how it works). He and the nurse get into an argument which ends when the black guy (whose manner and faux ghetto-talk indicate that the filmmakers had never met a black person before) loudly tells the nurse to treat the asthma girl first. The nurse is confused by this and hesitates, but the guy insists, and when she continues to hesitate he PULLS OUT A GUN AND SHOOTS THE FLOOR TWICE so as to spur her into action. First of all, who brings a gun to a hospital? What is this, Grey’s Anatomy? Second of all, it’s meant to be like a light comic scene! Oh let’s all laugh at how quickly black people PULL OUT GUNS AND SHOOT THEM IN PUBLIC PLACES.

Anyway. The main plot is pretty terrible, too. Spacey and Hunt dislike each other at first. (He’s stuck-up and uses big words; she’s more down to earth and defensive and makes poor life decisions. I guess it would be a problem in real life if two opposing stereotypes met each other and tried to date.) The movie throws up a bunch of obstacles to them getting together, basically just killing time until the ending. Hunt’s all, why won’t you let me have sex with you right away like I do with all the other guys, and Spacey’s all, you wanna know how I got these scars? (His father burnt him. That scene where he tells her about it is actually pretty good/sad, because Kevin Spacey is still a good actor, despite the tripe he’s working with here.) And then they have scarry disfigured bleached blonde sex and it’s weird.

At some point, Jon Bon Jovi, of all people, shows up as HJO’s absent and drunken father. This is the most telegraphed part of the movie. (And this is a movie that may as well have been directed by Samuel Morse. ZING.) JBJ’s in two scenes. In the first scene, he comes back to the house after being away for a few years, claiming to be sober and interrupting a lovely night at home with the three principals. So she attempts to take him back. Ten minutes later, his second and final scene features him drinking again, being abusive and loud and threatening HJO, and generally giving love a bad name. So she throws him out. Subplot over. Just killing time.

(I’m going to talk about the ending now. This movie came out 11 years ago and it sucks. So SPOILER ALERT, I guess, but still. Come on.) So Jay Mohr figures out that HJO “invented” pay it forward, so he finds him and tapes an interview with him at school. The kid's (choppy, rambling, fairly nonsensical) speech inspires Spacey and Hunt to put aside their differences and make out up against some lockers at a middle school full of kids. What could possibly go wrong now? Here’s what. HJO sees some loser friend of his getting bullied by some ponytailed kid (the third time in the movie that this has happened; you’d think a guidance counselor would have heard about this at some point). The last time this happened, HJO didn’t intervene and felt guilty about it; this time, he does, and he gets STABBED IN THE STOMACH by Ponytail Jones and DIES.

In the filmmakers’ defense, you can’t say HJO/we didn’t see it coming: in one of the first scenes in the movie, we see the kid slickly slip his knife past the metal detectors at the school. And like Chekhov said, if some douchey middle-schooler slips his knife past a metal detector in the first act, he’s gonna use it to stab the protagonist in the stomach in the third act. Jesus. This really was one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen. So idiotic and manipulative and cheap. And I finally understood what FOTB Steve Isaac meant when he said, “Watching Pay It Forward is like learning that Santa is real, then watching your dad stab him.”

So what is the lesson of this movie? I think the movie wants us to think it's that one person really can change the world. HJO's interview is aired on TV, made ever more poignant by the fact that only minutes after it was taped, he was stabbed to death by a middle-schooler (it's important to repeat that to remember just how ridiculous it is). The newscaster says that the  pay it forward movement is spreading throughout the West Coast, and finally there's a big Field of Dreams ripoff with a bunch of people coming to their house with candles and such. First of all, it's really not all that many people (I'd imagine hundreds of times more Vegas residents were gambling their lives away right down the road from the house at the time). Second of all, you can't do that! It doesn't erase the fact that you just killed off the main character for no reason at all. So the real lesson of the movie is, doing all the good deeds in the world won't stop you from getting killed when you're 11 years old. Alright! Thanks guys. Good to know.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: I think you can tell by now that I didn’t really enjoy this movie. So here’s something else instead.

An anecdote from FOTB Joe Kirkwood regarding his connection to this movie: Pay It Forward blew my mind when I saw it as a 12-year-old. It left me awestruck, thinking, "Wait, people can LIVE in Las Vegas?" That's pretty much all I remember about the movie itself, but I have a story to tell nonetheless: In 7th grade, in my Family and Consumer Science class (which I later learned was called Home Ec by normal schools), we were forced to watch Pay It Forward for a week. FCS was actually a very useful class. We learned how to use a sewing machine and bake, and we learned about the Better Business Bureau and how to shop smart and not get screwed over. Probably the most useful stuff I learned in middle school besides that everyone sucks.

So it was AIDS-like levels of against type for us to waste a week on this bad movie. And that wasn't even the worst part. There was the dreaded accompanying assignment. Look, I don't have a good track record with assignments. I don't like them, and they, well they generally haven't met me I guess, but they probably wouldn't like me. So I was already upset. Then the bomb was dropped: Over the following week, we were assigned to "pay it forward" three distinct times. We had to describe those payments of it forward on notecards, and pin those notecards to a big corkboard under our names for all to see.

After having seen the film and analyzed its morality as deeply as possible in an instant (as a 7th grader, mind you; this is not a complex movie), I was incensed. I got into an argument after class with our teacher, Mrs. Chappell. (As a reference point, and I'll try to be precise here, Mrs. Chappell was an overweight, belligerently friendly Jane Lynch.) Basically I argued that the whole point of paying it forward was that it wasn't mandatory and no one sought credit for it. The assignment, I seethed, ruined the idea instantly. Looking back, I think she was just trying to get some middle schoolers to be nice to each other for one measly week. Anyway I wrote fake "it" payments on my notecards and called it a day. I think I learned a lot from this movie.

How I felt after the movie ended: There was a lot of roadwork outside my house when I was watching this movie, so I decided to watch some of it with the subtitles on so that I could more accurately discern the terrible dialogue. And then this happened and I think it sums things up:

That’s what I’m sayin’.

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