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Who's the Cynic?

Pay It Forward dug its own grave

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* Warning: If you have not seen Pay It Forward and do not wish to know how it ends, stop reading now!

In last Sunday's Gazette, film critic Warren Epstein, in his "On Screen" column, lambasted "cynical" critics for dooming the Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment vehicle, Pay it Forward, to box office failure.

Noting that he gave the "uplifting" film an A- in his review, Epstein characterized Pay it Forward as "a good-hearted drama, one that tries to send the simple message that doing good deeds can lead to a better world."

Wrong.

As one of those hard-hearted critics who found the ending of Pay It Forward so unpalatable as to ruin the entire effect of the film, I'd like to sound off on exactly why it is not an uplifting film but is, instead, a cynical fable disguised in fairy-tale clothing.

First, a true story. On the day I viewed Pay it Forward, upon returning home I was asked by my sons, roughly the same age as Osment in the film, how I liked it. "It was OK," I said. "But I really hated the ending. It ruined the whole film for me."

"Oh," one of them said knowingly. "They killed off the kid, right?"

With its penchant for blockbuster endings rife with cheap drama, Hollywood has created an entire generation of little cynics who know to expect the worst. The most desired and most heavily courted demographic group, teenagers, for whom Pay it Forward could have been a genuinely uplifting morality tale, understand the inherent message in the film: Yes, the world can be changed by good deeds, but regular kids, mere mortals, are doomed to have no impact on the world. Only "special" kids like Osment, little Jesuses who will be martyred for the cause, who will die for the sins of the world, can ultimately change things.

Epstein and other critics have acknowledged that they found the ending of the film a little "heavy-handed," but they liked it anyway. That's a little like saying, "Wow, that was a great party except for the fatal crash on the way home."

None of this, however, should detract from the impact of Helen Hunt's outstanding performance in Pay it Forward. I hope Hollywood nominates her for an Oscar for her amazing portrayal of a burned-out, recovering alcoholic, single mom. But as critics like Epstein have pointed out, because the Oscar buzz died quickly as the film failed at the box office (thanks to cynical critics' negative reviews), Hunt will likely be overlooked.

Whose cynicism is responsible for this sad state of affairs? If a film is not a blockbuster, in other words, the quality of its individual performances will be negated and overlooked. Be sure to blame critics, not Hollywood moguls or fickle viewers, for that.

Here's another problem: Can any mother out there possibly accept the notion that, together, Helen Hunt and scar-faced Kevin Spacey will somehow endure the loss of her precious son and carry on his work as is suggested by the film's final scene?

I think not. I imagine Hunt going straight back to the bottle after her little man is slain by bullies on the schoolyard, and blaming Spacey, her kid's interfering social studies teacher, for ever getting involved with her kid in the first place.

Finally, I deplore Pay it Forward's false sweetness and the hateful but widespread myth it perpetuates. Young viewers and adults alike are asked to once again swallow the idea that getting gunned down in middle school -- or in this case, getting stabbed in the gut with a knife and killed -- is a very real threat, a possibility that all junior high age kids should be prepared for. Oh, and hey, if you're a good guy and they're bad guys, you could be immortalized for your sacrifice!

Call me a cynic, but Pay it Forward, in spite of stellar performances by Hunt, Osment and Spacey, fails to bring home its simple message of fixing the world by good-deed doing. It works as a morality tale only up to a point, then plunges headlong into the worst kind of Hollywood cynicism -- the kind that assumes moviegoers are passive automatons, incapable of distinguishing hype from real human drama.

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