It is common nature to eventually repay someone who does a good deed for you.
But what if, in a perfect world, that very act of kindness led you to,
instead, pay that very good will to three other people, under the condition
that they will do the same for three more? Idealistic? Yes. But that is the
key notion present in "Pay It Forward," a brilliantly acted, but dramatically
inaccurate drama, saccharinely directed by Mimi Leder (1998's "Deep Impact").
There is rarely a kind of film more disappointing than those that strive for
excellence, and have what it takes to be successful, but come up far short,
misplacing emotional honesty with audience manipulation. For every moment of
true poignance and effectiveness, there are three that ring with a resounding
falseness that stops the whole picture in its tracks.
It is the first day of the seventh grade, and intelligent latchkey kid Trevor
(Haley Joel Osment) is intrigued when his hard-edged, but caring, social
studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), whose severe scars on his face
mask his fear of ever getting close with anyone, presents the class with an
extra credit assignment--find a way to change the world, and put that idea
into play. Whereas the rest of his classmates choose to begin recycling and
picking up trash alongside the road, Trevor takes the assignment very
seriously, devising the idea of paying it forward, in which you do something
important to change someone's life with the understanding that they will do
the same for three other people, and those three do the same for three more,
and so on.
Trevor's first act of kindness is taking a heroin-addicted homeless man
(James Caviezel) off the streets and giving him shelter in his garage,
unbeknownst to his working-class mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), who rarely gets
to see Trevor, as she works two jobs (one at a Las Vegas casino, and the
other as a waitress) and drinks herself to sleep every night. Arlene loves
Trevor unconditionally, but he holds her in contempt for her dishonesty about
her alcoholism. With the fear that his no-good, abusive father (Jon Bon Jovi)
will eventually come crawling back to her, Trevor next decides to set Arlene
and Mr. Simonet up, in hopes that both of their inner pain and suffering will
make them a perfect match for each other.
Meanwhile, set four months later, Los Angeles news reporter Chris Chandler
(Jay Mohr) gets his car totaled, only to have a kindly man give him a new
Jaguar, no strings attached. This unbelievable financial sacrifice leads
Chris to discover the Pay It Forward Movement, which he eventually tracks all
the way to Las Vegas, where Trevor resides and has no idea his idea has
spread across the country.
Based on the popular novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, "Pay It Forward"
intermittently succeeds solely due to the powerhouse performances from the
three leads. After all, they get no help from the uneven screenplay, by
Leslie Dixon, which is unconvincing in its romance between Arlene and Eugene,
a subplot that gradually becomes the center of the movie. Had the emotionally
wounded Arlene and Eugene struck up a friendship and, together, helped each
other to come to terms with the problems and mistakes that they had made in
their lives, the film would have been infinitely more effective than the
melodramatic, totally unnecessary romance that comes to the forefront.
Kevin Spacey (1999's "American Beauty") and Helen Hunt (2000's "Dr. T and the
Women") are well-cast as the conflicted Eugene Simonet and the struggling
Arlene, respectively. Both actors are at the top of their games here, with
Spacey always lending an assured, realistic presence to his roles, and Hunt
never being better. Hunt, especially, has gone all out to present us with a
decidedly unattractive portrayal of a woman who is torn between the love for
her child and the addiction to alcohol that she can't seem to kick. Never
once afraid to look physically worn-out and wretched, Hunt gives a brave and
touching performance, one of the very best of the year.
In his first cinematic venture since his Oscar-nominated turn in 1999's "The
Sixth Sense," 12-year-old Haley Joel Osment is nearly flawless. Unlike the
vast majority of child actors, who are too precocious for their own good, and
whom you can always catch acting for the camera, Osment delivers such
unaffected work that he even puts to shame many A-list adult actors. "The
Sixth Sense" wasn't at all a fluke; Osment is the real deal.
The supporting players run the gamut from emphatic to misguided. Angie
Dickinson (2000's "Duets") is a standout as Arlene's mother, a bag lady who
is surprisingly satisfied with where her life is at, or just comes off that
way to hide her pain and regret as both a mother and a person. Jay Mohr
(1999's "Go") can be a fine actor, but his role of reporter Chris Chandler,
who tracks down the source of the Pay It Forward Movement, is utterly
superfluous, and every time his scenes show up, you can't help but think how
this whole subplot slows the main story down, and could have been edited
completely from the movie without making the slightest bit of difference.
Finally, James Caviezel (2000's "Frequency") does what he can with his few
scenes, while Jon Bon Jovi (1998's "No Looking Back") appears in little more
than a cameo.
The concept of paying it forward is surely a fresh one, and although it
probably would never work in the real world, the movie remains hopeful and
strong-spirited. What is so disheartening, then, is that its reliance on plot
contrivances keep weighing down all that is good about the film.
Additionally, the downbeat ending is nearly unforgivable, (minor spoiler ahead
) sparing one of the characters' lives for the sole purpose of getting the
audience to grow weepy. Had the death been the least bit respectably or
realistically done, then it might have been all right, but the approach that
is taken comes off feeling like a thoroughly artificial twist. It puts the
final nail in the coffin of "Pay It Forward," an already-flawed motion
picture that could have added up to so much more than it ultimately does.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman