Romance ,
October 20, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Pay It Forward” is do gooder Hollywood doing bad

”Pay It Forward” is about a cute kid, played by Haley Joel Osment, who reinvents the wheel. No, that’s not right, it’s about a boy who sends out a chain letter, and pretty soon a billion people get lucky. Actually, the movie, which opens this weekend, is about a bantam weight young movie star who follows up on his remarkable success in ”The Sixth Sense” by taking a very similar role, that of Trevor McKinney, a sad sweetie pie with extraordinary powers: He sees drunk people.

Trevor sees his mother, played by Helen Hunt, guzzling rotgut liquor after a long night working as a waitress at a topless club. He sees his alky father, played by Jon Bon Jovi, threatening violence. And, inspired by a pep talk given by Kevin Spacey as his social studies teacher, about how even kids who have never received Golden Globe nominations can change the world with one great idea, Trevor decides to save everybody — his teacher included — by starting a chain letter of good deeds.

Now, I’ve pretty forcefully stated my objections to ”Pay It Forward” in my review this week. But I haven’t finished gnashing my teeth about the showy piety accompanying the production’s marketing. Did you know for instance — as one magazine story reported — that a producer wept when he read the script, so moved was he by the idea that some people voluntarily do good without wearing a ribbon or receiving a tax deduction? Did you know that the director, Mimi Leder, hopes the picture will make the world a better place?

Are we really so unused to ”committing random acts of kindness” — as the peeling bumper stickers on old VW Beetles used to put it — that we require salvation at the hands of Hollywood? Apparently so. Just the other day, the corporate communications folks at Time Warner (of which the picture’s producing studio, Warner Bros., is a component, as is Entertainment Weekly), sent out a memo urging all staff to ”make a difference” by moving along a chain press release to 4,782,969 people. Each time we e-mail it forward, the memo said, we can select from a list of charities, and the one that gets the most votes will receive $5,000. (I’m estimating that paltry figure is less than what it cost the production in makeup supplies, per week, to artificially disfigure Kevin Spacey’s face with burns.)

If we don’t participate, I guess, we will have really, really bad luck. Well, consider the chain broken here and blame me for falling stock prices. The only thing I hate more than movies that force lessons in charity down my gullet are lessons in charity taught by millionaire actors and producers whose tears don’t get in the way of eyeing box office numbers and the salvation eternally found at the shrine of Oscar.

123 minutes
Mimi Leder
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