Pay It Forward
Director: Mimi Leder. Cast: Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, Angie Dickinson, Jim Caviezel. Screenplay: Leslie Dixon (based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde).

Pay It Forward is like a low-rent As Good As It Gets, and I say this as someone who thought As Good As It Gets itself was pretty low-rent. A damaged wiseacre of a man sustains an increasingly improbable romance with a tough-to-crack, working class dame played by Helen Hunt, whose acting exhibits more discipline than anything else in the movie. Meanwhile, a third protagonist gets thrown into the mix to simultaneously endear himself to the audience and raise the film's stakes for easy "tragic" payoffs. The earlier film featured Greg Kinnear as a saintly gay man attempting to reconcile with his bigoted parents; the new film, unsatisfied with the merely "saintly," offers up a bona fide saint in the form of Haley Joel Osment, a child martyr to the cause of global harmony. (If you don't want to know more about the film's plot, or if you think I've already said too much, come back after you've seen the film.)

Pay It Forward's very ambition of combatting all the cynicism in the world immediately throws an impossible obstacle in the way of an unimpressed critic: slam the film, and you sound like a participant in the global pessimism the film means to resist. In a baldly defensive move, I'd like to say that I support the altruistic message in Pay It Forward in equal measure as I deplore the cheap, manipulative, and incredible mechanics to which it resorts—not instantly, but eventually, and grandly so—to realize its own vision of a "better" world. That Pay It Forward has to strain so hard for its image of goodness proves, ironically, that the film has its own cross of cynicism to bear. Did the filmmakers really think no audience member's heart could be warmed without trotting out the painful secrets of its characters and the wholly gratuitous death of a child for us to weep over?

Osment, so good in The Sixth Sense, portrays Trevor McKinney, a seventh-grader in a Las Vegas public school. He conceives of the titular scheme in response to an assignment from his Social Studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Spacey), who wants his students to change the world. Trevor proposes that subscribers to his plan perform difficult, selfless acts on behalf of three strangers, who themselves act bravely and selflessly on behalf of three other strangers—thus paying their good fortune "forward" into society instead of "paying back" the do-gooders in their own lives. The softie in me, who cried right through the ending of Music of the Heart, admired Trevor's civic derring-do; the grouch, who thinks The Princess Bride is a boring waste of time, wondered why Trevor limits everyone to three acts of kindness. I seem to recall a lady named Erin Brockovich who, earlier in the year, paid it pretty damn forward to an entire region of people in need—and that movie, genre-bound as it may have been, didn't rely on a lot of schematic pitches and close-ups of teary-eyed Haley Joel to make important points about the individual satisfaction in doing good deeds despite strong opposing forces.

Speaking of good old Erin, a lot of people have compared Helen Hunt's work as Trevor's mom Arlene in this film to Julia Roberts' glowing performance in the earlier film. I assume the people who have made this comparison perceive any two women struggling to hold multiple jobs, wary of romantic propositions, and of prepossessing bosom to be indistinguishable. In fact, Hunt's Arlene is even more wounded and, however inadvertently, more wounding a person than her ostensible doppelganger. Battling a severe alcohol problem as well as the anger of a son who only notices her mistakes, Arlene is a poignant creation whom Hunt wisely realizes will only work if she doesn't play the poignancy. Instead, the actress wears garish makeup, adopts a harsher gait and speaking style than we have ever seen from her, and picks her moments sparingly. If the results cannot be called triumphant, this is because Arlene is written too erratically to be convincing; her growing passion for Eugene, though inevitable as a narrative conceit, is nonetheless impossible to take seriously. Arlene doesn't trust people like Eugene and feels utterly self-conscious around them. Hunt wrestles admirably, and with some success, to make the character cohere, but there's no way we aren't going to notice how hard she has to work at it.

Spacey and Osment, meanwhile, are much more transparent in their approach to their characters. Both actors alternate between reviving their familiar personae and "stretching" in conspicuous ways. Their discomfort is obvious enough in these moments of playing against type to overshadow their proficiency in other scenes. Spacey, a casualty of careless screenwriting, is given several showboating speeches through which to exercise his amazing finesse with the English language. However, like William H. Macy in Magnolia, he seems to have taken up the challenge to play a more emotionally voluble character than we're used to seeing, and his fifth-act, torrential epiphanies just don't go over. Their function as tear-grabbers is too overt, and his attempts to drive them home seem forced and actorly. It doesn't help that Leder insists on cutting to Hunt during scenes clearly intended as Eugene's epiphanies.

Osment, meanwhile, has the Young Boy With Adult Anxieties thing down, and I'm still energized to see where he will take his precocious talent in future years. When Pay It Forward seeks to pass off this preternaturally polished actor as an "everyday kid," however, the results go off the improbability meter. Haley Joel Osment would no sooner throw a bean-bag chair around the room during a televised WWF match, or kick his feet bashfully when put before a news camera, than I would star in The Dionne Warwick Story. The film wants us to buy the impossible Spacey-Hunt romance because we know they are movie stars; then it wants us to forget Osment's celebrity and accept him as a torn-T-shirt rugrat.

And frankly, we have no option but to focus on Pay It Forward as a star vehicle, because nothing else about it matters to us. A parallel plot involving Jay Mohr as a journalist tracing the Pay It Forward phenomenon is essentially a catastrophe. Since the film is telling us how the "movement" originated, we don't need a plot where a superfluous, charmless character attempts to figure it out. This garden path also leads to the year's single worst scene in a movie that isn't Blair Witch 2, involving an asthmatic in an emergency room and a black character so absurdly volatile he makes Queen Latifah in Set It Off seem sedate. Cameo-ish appearances by Jon Bon Jovi as Arlene's abusive ex-husband and Angie Dickinson as a dissolute baglady with her own secrets don't fare much better.

Pay It Forward, then, is less a movie about doing favors for three strangers than about handing showy roles to three Hollywood stars, all of whom are being paid well to look bad and then go home to cross their fingers on Oscar-nomination day. Helen Hunt at least has the wherewithal to convince you for two hours that she believes in what she's doing. Maybe I'm concerned, though, that she'd go to all the trouble for a picture that abandons even the humble pleasures of its first half and ends up in a visual enactment of George Bush's old "Thousand Points of Light" speech. The ending is the most grandiose and undeservedly celestial since Breaking the Waves, and I guarantee you that's the last time those two movies will be mentioned in conjunction. Unfortunately, Mimi Leder can't claim to have tarnished a masterpiece with an insane and insulting final shot; her conclusion simply delivers the logical conclusion of a film that's had its head in the clouds from early on. C

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