Just in time to placate the quadrennial Beltway snipers, Warner Bros. prostrates itself before John McCain with the inbred Gump relation Pay It Forward, an overflowing septic tank of chicken-soupy sanctimony that proceeds from casually offensive hypocrisy to wretchedly inapt religiosity. The studio has requested that reviewers collude in its brain-dissolving assault on the moviegoing public and not disclose the end of the film, and a critic would, under normal circumstances, be professionally honor-bound to comply. But Hollywood manipulations as virulent, cynical, and phonily wholesome as this (the filmmakers have gone so far as to position this godsploitation atrocity as an object lesson) require drastic responses, and it would be equally irresponsible for a critic not to discuss the egregious twist with which Pay It Forward concludes (turn away now if you care): The kid from The Sixth Sense—he dies, croaks, buys the farm, ceases to exist, meets Joe Black. They knife him. To death. Because Haley Joel Osment, in the dangerous, harebrained scheme of this grievously misguided passion play, is Jesus. After two hours of mawkish do-gooding, the precocious tyke is stabbed in the ribs by a playground bully. He falls to his knees, arms flailing, in slow motion. Director Mimi Leder, a Spielberg protégé, dutifully provides an aerial shot.
The title refers to the chain-reaction exponential-goodwill scheme devised by HJO in response to a tauntingly ambiguous assignment by his burn-scarred social studies teacher Kevin Spacey (“change the world”). The little scamp fixes up his alcoholic, Vegas-topless-bar-waitress single mother (Helen Hunt) with Spacey, and helps out a startled junkie (James Caviezel); before long, the charity outbreak has reached L.A., where a journalist (Jay Mohr) decides to sniff out the origins of the “pay it forward” movement. Compassion is confused throughout with pity and condescension, even when it comes to the central romance (Hunt, throwing herself at Spacey: “Something is being offered to you here”), and the movie’s class and racial politics are indefensible. The Spacey character in the original novel was black and a Vietnam vet; here the source of his tasteful scars is ostentatiously skirted around and guarded like a state secret for so long that when he finally projectile-vomits his miserable backstory into your lap, it lands with extra force. While I’m at it, I might as well tell you: His dad did it.
If not much else, Stardom has a formal conceit—and clings to it for dear life. Denys Arcand’s sub-Brechtian, pseudo-McLuhanesque, anti-Warholian satire charts a Canadian high schooler’s fairy-tale ascent to supermodel celebrity (and her True Hollywood Story slide into obscurity) through a series of uniformly brainless mass-mediated images: news reports, talk shows, commercials, interviews, telethons, puff pieces. To a degree, Arcand approximates the evanescent, analgesic quality of a long, dumb channel surf—an activity that’s never much fun when someone else is hogging the remote.
Stardom‘s purposefully blank heroine, Tina Menzahl (Jessica Pare), is discovered in a backwater ice-hockey rink; a sports photographer catches her mid-pout, and before long she’s pacing the Montreal catwalks and shacked up with an unctuous French photographer (Charles Berling). Tina then goes from homewrecker (moving to New York with married restaurateur Dan Aykroyd) to trophy wife, perched uncomfortably on the arm of Canadian UN ambassador Frank Langella. As she hops from New York to Paris to London, from ski resort to Caribbean island, Arcand tracks the meaninglessness of her fame by stressing the vacuity of televisual codes and clichés. Tina’s caught in numerous Springerish ambushes (an Oprah clone stages a cruel reunion with her estranged father) and interviewed or stalked by infotainment correspondents, fashion-maven creatures, breathlessly belligerent VJs. But the director also compromises his high concept with a disingenuous device: A flamboyant fashion photographer (Robert Lepage) shadows Tina for a Truth or Dare-style documentary, and Arcand, too timid to fully simulate the disjointedness inherent in his premise, uses the canned black-and-white mock-vérité like putty.
With a few exceptions (none more memorable than a discombobulated Langella’s riotous outburst before the United Nations), most of the laughs in Stardom are cheap—and worse, the ideas beyond platitudinous. A newsreader interrupts a report on a cult suicide in Algeria to carry live a breaking story about Tina’s hospitalization for cuts and bruises, and we’re supposed to tsk in horror. The fickleness of fame, the distortions of mass media, the skewed priorities of celebrity culture—Arcand treats each truism like a hard-won insight.