Bitch-Slapped by an Angel

Pay It Forward brings grit to the weeper. Billy Elliot doesn’t dance enough. Altman takes a virtuoso turn in Dr. T and the Women. The Contender updates the political thriller. 

Pay It Forward
Directed by Mimi Leder
Warner Bros.

Billy Elliot
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Universal Pictures

Dr. T and the Women
Directed by Robert Altman
Artisan Entertainment

The Contender
Directed by Rod Lurie
DreamWorks SKG 

We’re used to thinking of tear-jerkers as tender and bathed in syrup, but two newfangled weepers play it gritty and bleak. Pay ItForward, the season’s most lofty entry in the two-hanky sweepstakes, comes packaged as a heartwarmer about an 11-year-old’s infectious idealism. You’ve probably heard the premise—and groaned. In response to a social studies assignment to come up with an idea that will change the world for the better, Las Vegas junior-high-school student Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) devises a sort of existential chain letter whereby he will do something big for three people, then those people will each do something big for three more people, and so the good deed will spread exponentially. Mushroom clouds of kindness!

The shocker is that the movie, directed by Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, 1998), manages not only to eschew sickly sweetness but also to paint a rather grim picture of human society. The central love story is between Trevor’s mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt), a wizened alcoholic with a history of abusive relationships, and his teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), who’s so disfigured by burns that his chest looks like something the dog spit up. The film is rife with poverty, addiction, the threat of child molestation, and senseless murder. Intent on steering clear of suds, Pay It Forward overcompensates like mad and piles horror on horror. I half-admired that strategy until the ending, which I’m enjoined from disclosing but which answers to the name “overkill.” The movie isn’t just gunning for Academy Awards. It wants the Nobel Peace Prize. It wants to found a religion of goody-two-shoes.

What’s wrong with that? In theory, not much. The idea that society makes selflessness seem unnatural and that only a conscious design—a regime—to do good can put people in touch with their essential decency is less sentimental than it first appears. How many obstacles there are, the movie says, to putting others first! How unfashionably utopian! Shrewdly, the screenplay (by Leslie Dixon, based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde) begins with a suspicious Los Angeles journalist named Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr) who’s the recipient of a “pay it forward” turn by a stranger and decides to trace the chain of charitable acts to their source. So, the movie moves backward and forward at the same time, with Chandler creeping toward Las Vegas while little Trevor’s altruism ripples outward. The filmmakers work hard to keep from slipping into Touched by an Angel territory by making some of the good deeds absurd and others ineffectual. Young Trevor feeds and clothes a homeless junkie (James Caviezel) who’s back on the needle in no time, and his plan to fix his mom up with his ugly teacher comes uncomfortably close to pimping. But even when a good turn seems not to bear fruit, it’s just in a sort of latency period. The junkie eventually spots a woman ready to leap off a bridge and “pays it forward.” And somewhere down the line is that journalist, poised to make Trevor a national poster boy for the life force.

As I’ve implied, Pay It Forward had enough grit to scratch its way through my cynical defenses, at least until its grotesque ending. But that capper isn’t an aberration—it’s the logical extension of the movie’s grandiose ambitions. In Leder’s The Peacemaker (1997), a metropolis stood on the verge of being nuked, and life on earth nearly ended in Deep Impact. Leder brings the same unwavering gravity to a story that begs for a glancing touch. There’s wonderful, maybe classic material here for a great comedy, and I don’t mean something silly or farcical. A tale of childish idealism in which some things go disastrously wrong and others miraculously right is the stuff of serious comedy—a celebration of the liberal impulse in all its ridiculousness and beauty. But when every scene has been written and directed so that the characters are on the edge of the abyss, the stakes have been jacked up too high. The revelation of the source of Simonet’s burns—which is hammily withheld until Arlene’s violent husband (Jon Bon Jovi) sweet-talks his way back into her life—is at once too tidy and too garishly overwrought, and the finale is like a punishment for having ever given the picture a chance.

Pay It Forward has been catching some bad publicity for changing the teacher from black to white and removing from Hyde’s novel the theme of racial tolerance. But the movie has enough themes: It could (and probably does) fill a study guide for a social studies class. The picture makes good use of Spacey. He has a gift, reminiscent of Olivier, for making you laugh at his underplaying—at how much anger he’s holding back. He pulls into himself, dries out his line readings, and makes the teacher’s edgy distaste for human contact seem a profound expression of neediness. Hunt’s neediness, on the other hand, is more on the surface. I liked her flayed, slightly screechy voice and haggard demeanor, but this isn’t an enjoyable performance. The way she throws herself at Spacey’s character—who gets to lecture her on child-raising—is gruesomely masochistic.

The movie turns on Osment, and you couldn’t ask for a more compelling little do-gooder. He makes it look as if this abstract idea really exists for him—as if his failure to remake the world will fester inside his head for the rest of his life. There’s something about that young/old face that gives you the willies. It would have been redundant to say this about him in The Sixth Sense (1999), but he looks haunted. This kid comes with his own ghosts.

In Billy Elliot, the eponymous 11-year-old hero (Jamie Bell) sneaks from boxing into ballet class in what could be a mirror image of Girlfight (2000). Real men don’t dance, but Billy’s gotta dance. The lad, whose mum died when he was small, seems to sense that the traditional manly way of doing things—as exemplified by his dad (Gary Lewis) and big brother (Jamie Draven)—is on the losing side of history in Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain. His Northern England coal town is in the throes of a messy and violent coal strike, and it’s out of that tumult that Billy’s terpsichorean tendencies seem to leap.

The English are specialists at grounding their go-for-it scenarios in the grime of the real world. Take the scene in The Full Monty (1997) in which the aspiring male dancers stare at a tape of Jennifer Beals in Flashdance (1983) and one says, “I hope she dances better than she welds. Those joints won’t hold fuck-all.” Billy Elliot isn’t a comedy, but it has the same kind of wet-blanket realism. The oppressiveness of his milieu spurs Billy’s biggest and best dance routine. Jeered at by his big brother and forbidden by his dad to audition for the Royal Ballet School, Billy shuts himself in an outhouse, then begins to punch and kick and finally tap dance off the walls. He kicks down the door. To the strains of T. Rex, he bangs up and down a set of stairs, leaps off the roof, pinwheels up a hill and down an alley, and crashes through a gate. He has the same kind of rage that his brother has defying the police outside the mines—only Billy’s fury is gorgeously stylized. And it gives him a future.

The rest of Billy Elliot isn’t quite as exhilarating. There’s too much miserable reality and not a lot of transcendent dance, and the director, Stephen Daldry, doesn’t cover the action from enough angles. He wants to make you feel Billy’s constriction, and he’s maybe too successful. But when it comes to jerking tears, it’s better to err on the side of dryness, and this movie does: When Lewis’ angry, inward dad finally expresses a smidgen of affection, it’s get-out-your-handkerchiefs time. It’s also moving to see the square old go-for-it formula applied to the dissolution of gender stereotypes—even if both Billy Elliot and Girlfight take pains to establish their protagonists’ heterosexuality. The former takes too many pains. Billy’s best friend, Michael (Stuart Wells), does turn out to be gay, and when he puts on makeup and slips into a little dress, he makes one cute girl. Does Billy really have to be so inhumanly straight?

I’ve been surprised to read less-than-enchanted reviews of Robert Altman’s buoyant new comedy, Dr. T and the Women, a movie that shows our country’s greatest living director working with offhand virtuosity. Altman’s frames are riotously alive, and he uses every inch of the screen to accommodate a score of gorgeous blondes: Helen Hunt, Laura Dern, Kate Hudson, Tara Reid, Farrah Fawcett, Shelley Long, Janine Turner, Lee Grant, and almost all the female extras.

The women are in constant orbit around Altman’s protagonist, Sullivan Travis (Richard Gere), a Dallas obstetrician/gynecologist known to both patients and friends as “Dr. T.” All day, the wealthy, ultracoiffed blondes converge on Dr. T’s office, where they chatter with the (blond) nurses, compare gynecological procedures, and fume about the inevitable wait. The staff informs Dr. T, sometimes anxiously, when he’s way behind and the “fillies are getting restless.” But the doctor is oddly insulated. He seems serenely certain that when he finally sees each woman, he’ll treat her royally, with loving respect, and then all that wayward female energy will dissipate. In the courtliest, most beneficent manner imaginable, he’s a chauvinist, and the movie chronicles nature’s revenge—not deadly, since Dr. T’s sins don’t warrant a tragic outcome. Nature toys with him, throws his universe into an uproar, spins him around and around, then lets him off with a wink.

The critic Manny Farber has written of the “dispersed frame” of movies of the early ‘70s: Directors like Altman, he says, are striving for a “non-solidity,” a “flux-like” space that seeks to capture “the freshness and energy of a real world within the movie’s frame.” In Dr. T and the Women, Altman’s rendition of a world in flux becomes the whole comic show, and he and his screenwriter, Anne Rapp, cram the film with visual jokes at their protagonist’s expense. Dr. T has faith in his own omniscience, but there’s always some bit of bustle—some particle of energy at the edge of the screen—that he misses entirely. He spends his days looking inside women and fancies himself a connoisseur—not a dirty-minded one, but a gentleman capable of infinite empathy. He preaches to his duck-hunting buddies that they should never take a woman for granted, by which he means they should always make her feel special. It doesn’t occur to him that he takes women for granted in far more fundamental ways. He thinks he knows them, and he doesn’t.

Altman has been accused of turning women into hysterical cartoons, but in this case I think he’s simply less interested in individuals than in what Farber would call patterns of flux. Dr. T and the Women is like a giddy ballet in which the women whirl around a still, clueless man. A manic actor—a farceur—would have been a mistake in this role. Gere has become a figure of fun for his Zen Buddhist proclamations, but his religion has done wonders for his acting. Once a strident Method bore, he’s now a genius at laying back and getting in sync with the energy of a scene. The blondes in Dr. T and the Women make him shine. And there’s an extra bit of resonance in his casting. As the Prince Charming of Pretty Woman (1990), Gere lent his presence to one of the most potent anti-feminist fairy tales of the modern cinema—a film that made the fantasy of rescuing and being rescued well-nigh irresistible. When he tries that routine at the end of Dr. T and theWomen, he gets a rude shock. It seems that Snow White likes her autonomy, even among the dwarfs.

Rod Lurie’s The Contender has a nonsensical twist ending that almost wrecks it, but until then it has enough fast, hyperliterate venality to make it great fun. It’s one of those leftist political-campaign thrillers like The Best Man (1964) or Advise and Consent (1962) in which the good liberals value means over ends while the right-wing Republicans get a dirty thrill out of slinging mud—in this case the accusation that a female candidate for vice president was happily gangbanged in college. In the center is prim Joan Allen, who neither looks nor sounds like a real politician and doesn’t even seem a plausible participant in a gangbang. But all the other actors have a blast playing men who have a blast playing politics. As the White House chief of staff, Sam Elliot is hilariously sleek and saturnine, and Jeff Bridges brings down the house as the laid-back hipster president who relishes psyching people out with his power. As the leader of right-wing forces of repression, Gary Oldman builds his character from the outside in, but that’s not a problem with a script this shallow. He has made himself alarmingly skinny—stripped down to pure fanaticism—and atop his bald head sprout little corkscrew curls that look like pubic hairs.