The central idea of "Pay It Forward" is this: Do something to help three
people. Something hard. Something they could not do for themselves. Then
tell each recipient that, instead of paying you back, he or she should
go out and help three other people. As more and more individuals "pay it
forward," the acts of kindness will build exponentially, creating a more
It's a wonderful idea, a noble idea; one that I (along with many others,
I suspect) intend to put into practice. Unfortunately, when writer
Catherine Ryan Hyde decided to turn her idea into a book, she apparently
felt our cynical culture would not accept such a sweet concept unless it
was couched in ugliness, pain and sacrifice. So she laid the melodrama
on thick, creating a tearjerker that turned the central character into
the Jesus Christ of New Age spirituality. Her strategy worked and the
novel was a hit. Now comes the movie.
"Pay It Forward," the film, has the best of intentions. The cast is
outstanding and the production contains quite a few effective sequences.
But the movie suffers from Mimi Leder's ham-handed direction, a script
that takes the novel's disparate subplots and ties them into a too-tidy
bow, and a climactic visual shamelessly ripped-off from "Field of
The main story follows seventh-grader Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel
Osment), a latch-key kid living in a run-down Las Vegas neighborhood
with his mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), an alcoholic working two jobs to
support the family. At the beginning of the school year, Trevor's new
social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), presents the
class with an extra-credit challenge: "Think of an idea to change our
world – and put it into action."
Trevor takes the assignment seriously and comes up with the pay it
forward concept. To test his theory, he offers shelter and some money to
Jerry (James Caviezel), a homeless drug addict. When a startled Arlene
encounters Trevor's new friend, she storms to the school, furious that a
teacher would give her child such a dangerous assignment. There she
meets the utterly mystified Simonet, a fastidious, well-spoken creature
of habit with a badly scarred face and a guarded demeanor. Thus begins a
tentative relationship between the two damaged souls, with Trevor paying
it forward by playing matchmaker.
The primary storyline is interwoven with a subplot that begins several
months later in Los Angeles, when reporter Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr) is
the recipient of a lavish gift from a stranger on a rainy night.
Pursuing his benefactor, Chandler learns about the pay it forward idea
and decides to trace it back to its origin. A series of vignettes
follow, as the investigation gradually leads the writer to Trevor.
Moving the setting of the story from the heartland to Las Vegas was
inspired. Where most films focus solely on the glitz of the city's
casinos, "Pay It Forward" presents Las Vegas from the residents' point
of view, accenting the gulf between working-class folk and the flashy
opulence of the buildings that glow in the distance.
Hiring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment was another wise
decision. Spacey continues his career path from character actor to
mainstream leading man with another carefully etched performance. Hunt
also creates a rich, well-drawn character and young Osment is as
impressive here as he was in "The Sixth Sense."
Most of the supporting cast must deal with underwritten parts. Angie
Dickinson does good work as a bag lady and Jim Caviezel touches the
heartstrings as the desperate Jerry, although his doe eyes are played up
more than is necessary. In the reporter role, Jay Mohr is serviceable,
as is Jon Bon Jovi in a brief appearance as Trevor's wayward father.
Other aspects of the production are less successful. Thomas Newman's
otherworldly score is overly reminiscent of his haunting "American
Beauty" soundtrack. Continuity problems abound courtesy of the makeup
department. Maybe it's the lighting, but Simonet's facial scars appear
to change from scene to scene. The same happens with Jerry's teeth,
which appear to grow markedly nastier whenever he delivers an
But the biggest problems lie in the screenplay and direction. The
teacher in the book received his wounds during the Vietnam War. The
source of Simonet's injuries (which I won't reveal here) is different,
concocted by scriptwriter Leslie Dixon as part of a needless and
unwelcome attempt to connect two storylines with an extra level of pain.
Her efforts to tidy up the book (watch as a hitchhiking Jerry hops out
of a truck and walks onto a bridge, where he immediately encounters a
woman preparing to jump) only manage to make the proceedings seem
As for Mimi Leder, the director needs to take a remedial course in
camera work. Beyond a criminal overuse of close-ups, she repeatedly aims
her lens at the wrong places. The most egregious offense occurs during a
sex scene, when the extremely self-conscious Simonet finally lets down
his guard with another person. Leder foolishly elects to show the
teacher opening his shirt to reveal his scarred torso. Instead of being
entranced by the intimacy between Simonet and his partner, we end up
studying the makeup crew's handiwork.
And then there's the ending of the film, which you will find either
deeply moving or totally unnecessary. Whether you leave the theater
sniffling or angry, I hope you remember that, regardless of its many
problems, "Pay It Forward" puts forth an idea that actually could alter
this planet. If enough of us are as dedicated and industrious as Trevor,
we can take this overwrought, cumbersome fiction and create a better
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott