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Pay it Forward

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Pay it Forward

Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Kevin Spacey
Director: Mimi Leder
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 122 Minutes
Release Date: October 2000
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: James Caviezel, Jon Bon Jovi, Helen Hunt, Jay Mohr, Angie Dickinson

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"Meet the Parents" is a perfect title, an ideal label for a movie that is about just that. By contrast, the awkward "Pay It Forward" is an expression so stilted, so convoluted that the characters in Mimi Leder's movie get to repeat the phrase a dozen times or so to make sure that every last audience member understands the connotation, which is: When a character does you a good turn, don't pay the favor back. Instead pay it forward by doing a kindness for three other people. Be sure you tell each of the three other people to do something for three more. Pretty soon, following a geometric progression, the whole world becomes a better place.

Sounds good, but just how do we interpret "do something for someone else?" If you give up your seat in the subway car to an elderly person, you're doing good, and if that person who just assumed your seat says a really pleasant "good morning" to a neighbor, she's doing something good. The problem is that just about everyone does something that benefits another person every day, and yet the world is not the utopia that its originator promised.

What started this idea? None other than a middle-school social studies teacher in the Las Vegas suburbs, the lonely, quiet, and unassuming Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), who springs to life only when he's in front of a stack of eleven- year olds. Delivering an introductory lesson on the opening day of school--without even bothering to take attendance or distribute textbooks--he flips up a map of the U.S. and demonstrates with stick figures how his pay-it-forward concept works. When a particularly attentive lad, Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment), challenges the instructor by asking what he ever did to help change the world, Simonet is caught off guard. Couldn't he just say that by teaching 100 kids every day he is doing far more than most others to help complete strangers rather than paying back his mom and others who served him in the past?

As Leder begins her film, based on Leslie Dixon's adaptation of Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel, she takes a page or two out of just about any movie about kids in schools making "Pay It Forward" a "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" without the laughs or "If" without the fiery rebellion. More eager to please the three-hanky crowd than to evoke laughs or create something of quality, Leder turns the story into a do-good soap with conventional cinematography--which means that though she may be justified in infusing more melodrama than you'd find in a humdrum day, she would do well at least to keep her characters believable. This is the hardly the case.

In one circumstance, for example, Trevor, taking the teacher's opening day assignment seriously, discovers a group of drug-addicted losers during one of his furious bike rides. Without knowing a thing about them, he invites Jerry the junkie (James Caviezal) to his home without his mother's permission, feeds him, and allows his mom to risk a heart attack upon discovering this disheveled stranger in their home. Jerry, not knowing the social studies teacher's rules, fixes the family truck, thereby paying it back instead of forward.

The principal goal of the gifted eleven-year-old is to fix her mother up with his favorite teacher, since the boy's own drunken father had abandoned the family months before. (Isn't that paying back his teacher and his mother for the good they did to him rather than paying it forward? But never mind.) Extra suds notwithstanding, the boy's mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), is an alcoholic who is warned to stay away from booze: to avoid men for at least a year lest she be put into an atmosphere where others are drinking. This does not stop her from being a cocktail waitress in Vegas club. In a subplot that seems to come from another movie rather than meshing successfully into this one, reporter Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr) is given a free Jaguar by a complete stranger after his own Mustang is totaled, and suspecting that the donor is in a cult, he tracks down the story--one which involves a favor done to the sports-car enthusiast by a common hoodlum that may have saved his daughter's life, and so the executive is paying the favor forward. (Wouldn't the suit be doing more for society if he sold that Jag and donated the money to a needy person rather than to a middle-class journalist?)

What a humiliation for Kevin Spacey to emerge from superior films like "American Beauty" and "The Big Kahuna," lowering himself by accepting a script that requires him to act the part of a burn victim who in one climactic scene that you've seen dozens of times before relates the story of his childhood abuse. Helen Hunt is made up to look so haggard that you wonder if the cosmetician ever heard the expression "less is more." And James Caviezel: how can you go from a strong, genuinely emotional piece of work as Frank Sullivan's son, John, in "Frequency" to accept the role of a saintly bum who not only repairs a long dormant truck but even saves a woman from jumping off a bridge? The only pleasure in this film is the work of Haley Joel Osment, the sort of kid any teacher would want in his classes, one who uses his ingenuity to design a plan to capture a stepfather for himself.

This movie is sappy, unbelievable, and utterly conventional in design. There now. I've done you a favor. Pay It Forward. Better still, pay it back.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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