In Mimi Leder's PAY IT FORWARD, seventh grade social studies teacher
Eugene Simonet throws out his standard challenge to his new students
("Think of an idea to change our world -- and put it into action.").
Eugene, a severe-burn victim, is played in another strong performance by
two-time Academy Award-winner Kevin Spacey (AMERICAN BEAUTY).
Previous classes haven't taken Eugene's change-the-world assignment
seriously, but this year Trevor McKinney, a latchkey kid, does. At 11,
Trevor is one of the smallest and youngest kids in his class. And with
AWOL parents, he is wise and serious beyond his years. As Trevor, Haley
Joel Osment, Oscar nominee for THE SIXTH SENSE, is amazing again. This
role, however, isn't nearly as meaty as his last; so don't expect to see
any nominations for him this time.
"So you'll like flunk us if we don't change the world?" Trevor demands
to know in a quizzical panic. "No, you might just squeak by on a 'C,'"
Eugene shoots back with a delicate mixture of sweet humor and biting
Trevor eventually comes up with an idea along the lines of a Good
Samaritan chain letter. His simple plan is that people should do good
deeds for three other people. His rules: "#1 it has to be something
that really helps people, #2 something they can't do by themselves and
#3 I do it for them, they do it for three other people." The only
caveat is that people can't pay it "back." They can only pay it
"forward," i.e., they must do something for someone else, not for the
person who helped them.
Trevor's mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), is one of the characters in need
of a lot of help. She is an admitted alcoholic with an abusive husband
and a woman whose only friends are other drunks. Working two jobs and
drinking heavily when she is home, Arlene is rarely there for her son,
either physically or emotionally. One of their mother-son
confrontations will have parents (and kids) in the audience flinching
and perhaps even shedding a tear or two. Arlene's husband, a fellow
drunk, is currently in one of his long banishment periods.
Both Spacey and Hunt are made to look awful in the service of their
craft. Arlene, especially after a long night of boozing, doesn't look
the least bit like Helen Hunt. Although Arlene's make-up and clothes
are convincingly terrible at first, she is spruced up too quickly, as
if, in some scene left on the cutting room floor, she had a makeover by
a beauty consultant. In contrast, as the story advances, Eugene shows
even more of his deep physical scars.
Jerry (James Caviezel, FREQUENCY), the first person who Trevor tries to
help, is a street person with a heavy drug habit. Eugene, Arlene and
Jerry share several traits. Eugene hides the story behind his burns.
Arlene hides her bottles like squirrels do nuts. And Jerry just hides,
period, lest Trevor find him shooting up again. Similarly, Eugene lives
for the rigidity of his precious schedule. Arlene lives for her next
drink. And Jerry lives for his next fix. Trevor and his pay-it-forward
scheme change all of this.
A parallel story, which starts slightly in the future, has a newspaper
man (Jay Mohr), who is himself befriended by a pay-it-forwarder,
tracking down the origin of the movement. Although it is an important
adhesive for the storyline, this subplot never provides anywhere near
the emotional or dramatic impact that it could have. Overall, Leslie
Dixon's script, based on Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel, is much better
with the dialog than the narrative.
One of the many sharply written interchanges between Trevor and Eugene
occurs when Eugene incorrectly thinks that Trevor is questioning his
sincerity. "Do I strike you as someone being falsely nice?" Eugene asks
caustically. "No, you're not even really nice," Trevor replies with
Although PAY IT FORWARD has more than enough to be able to recommend it,
it does have two significant problems. First, major plot twists are
needlessly telegraphed, destroying what would otherwise have been
dramatic surprises. Second, the acting is frequently too subdued, and
you can almost feel the director throttling back her cast. Yes, there
are some definitely saccharine scenes, but many others that should have
had significant emotional impact come across surprisingly lukewarm.
This will probably be an unpopular opinion, but PAY IT FORWARD is that
rare movie that would be more effective if it were schmaltzier.
PAY IT FORWARD runs a bit too long at 2:02. It is rated PG-13 for
mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual
situations, language and brief violence. It would probably be too
strong for most kids under 13.
Copyright © 2000 Steve Rhodes