Pay It Forward is the kind of film I approach with dread. Hollywood strikes many discordant notes, but self-satisfied celebrations of communal uplift land with an especially abrasive clang. Frame a public injustice as a mystery and let a flawed crusader clean things up--an Erin Brockovich, a Lowell Bergman, or even that violin teacher Meryl Streep played in Music of the Heart-- and I can walk away satisfied. It's the big canvas, the panoramic vision, the strained, hopeful statements about All of Us that Hollywood inevitably mucks up.
George Washington opens on a close-up of a boy's sneakered feet carefully maneuvering along a rusted beam. Dusted in sunlight, it's a quintessential image of American boyhood, evoking freedom as well as risk. He may be a kid killing time, testing his balance on a fence. Or a wanderer on a train track, both eyes focused on a destination far away from home. George Washington doesn't give us time to decide. The boy skips off the end of the beam, and before we can see what happens, director David Gordon Green cuts away. Did the boy land safely? Or did he tumble to the ground? Did he hop right up again, sturdy and hopeful, sure in his body and his heart that he can't really be hurt?
Flying cross-country after a photo-op with the border patrol, newly appointed U.S. drug czar Robert Wakefield tries to rouse his troops. Thrusting out a dimpled chin as only Michael Douglas can, Wakefield dares them to be creative. "I want everyone thinking out of the box for the next few minutes," he barks in the most telling scene in Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. "The dam is open for new ideas."
Remember the name: Michael Winterbottom. Not yet 40 and already the director of eight features, Winterbottom is the remarkably versatile, remarkably gifted Englishman one great film away from a place among today's moviemaking elite. His latest and most ambitious effort, The Claim, won't be that launching pad. A romantic epic set just after the California gold rush, it's too subdued, too snowy (literally and figuratively) to reach a big audience.
Rock critics a few years back coined the clever term miserablism to describe a brand of guitar music light in metallic crunch but heavy with emotional self-flagellation. It wasn't a compliment, exactly. Yet with songs like "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now," bands such as the Smiths and their flamboyant lead singer Morrissey proclaimed their angst so grandiosely it became, for fans, sublimely comic.