Pay It Forward

pay-it-forwardThe rules of Pay It Forward, the do-gooder plan outlined in the mawkish film of the same title, are simple: You do a big favor for someone, and that someone turns around and does favors for three other people, each of whom will do favors for three other people, and so on. I will now do you a big favor by telling you how lame Pay It Forward is. If you go forth and tell three other people how lame it is, my job will be done, and imagine how much better off the world will be.

Well, maybe not. But maybe if the word spreads and an anti-Pay It Forward movement starts up, movies like this won’t continue to be made. (Maybe.) The movie, directed by Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) from a script by Leslie Dixon, is certainly spring-loaded for Oscars: We have two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, Oscar winner Helen Hunt, and Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment (the haunted boy in The Sixth Sense), and boy, let me tell you, they just act their asses off; I mean, there’s some serious acting going on here. Everyone gets at least one Big Scene; Spacey and Hunt, by my count, get about four apiece, and little Haley isn’t far behind. How odd that all these Big Scenes should add up to such a paltry movie.

Seventh-grader Trevor McKinney (Osment) comes up with “Pay It Forward” in answer to a challenge by his social-studies teacher, Mr. Simonet (Spacey), to devise an idea that will change the world. Trevor is one of those noble suffering kids you only meet in movies; he has an alcoholic mom (Hunt) and an absent father (and, as played by the non-actor Jon Bon Jovi, he should’ve stayed absent). Regardless, Trevor is selfless enough to try to help others, including a homeless junkie (Jim Caviezel) as well as his mom and teacher, for whom he plays Cupid.

Trevor’s Twelve Stations of the Cross are interrupted every now and then so that we can follow a reporter (Jay Mohr, who belongs in sharper stuff than this) who’s trying to track down the origin of “Pay It Forward.” Trevor’s idea, you see, has become a movement — its fingers reach from Trevor’s Las Vegas home all the way to San Francisco. People have been paying it forward, one of whom, a bag lady living out of her car (Angie Dickinson!), turns out, in a nonsensical surprise, to be Hunt’s estranged mom. Hold on, back up. Trevor thinks nothing of inviting a homeless junkie into his house to eat Cap’n Crunch and sleep in the garage, but he doesn’t think to say “Hey Grandma, come home with me and have some cereal”?

Spacey manages to rescue some of his scenes, at least the ones that don’t force him to drop the Kevin Spacey cool we know and love; but what happened to Helen Hunt? She’s trying way too hard here to be the next Meryl Streep, always tensed up, and I was shocked to see this formerly subtle comedian chugging a bottle of whiskey during her relapse scenes as if acting in one of those Very Special TV movies she transcended 20 years ago. (Hell, she was better in the 1982 TV biopic Quarterback Princess than she is here. The only time she really relaxes here is when acting opposite Kathleen Wilhoite, who plays her friend in recovery — and who played her friend in Quarterback Princess. It’s a cool little reunion for those who saw the TV movie.) Osment is as appealing as he was in The Sixth Sense, and that’s the problem — he’s appealing in almost the same quiet, smart-little-kid way; the only scene I fully enjoyed involving all three fine actors was a quick scene in which teacher, mother, and excitable boy are sitting around (or, in Trevor’s case, jumping around) watching wrestling on TV.

In all, Pay It Forward is the stickiest pile of moosh since Patch Adams, and it has a comparable tragic ending that invalidates the film’s message. Someone attempts to carry out Trevor’s mission, and it backfires; we’re left thinking, “Okay, if that’s what happens when you try to help, why try to help?” Well, because if you fall in the line of charity, your face gets on TV, and lots of sobbing people congregate outside your house holding candles. The traffic of cars heading to the mass mourning seems to be backed up for miles; all I could think about during this allegedly heart-rending coda was how much it would suck if someone were having a heart attack or their house were on fire, and the ambulance or fire engine were stuck in that traffic. It’s a good thing I didn’t eat a big meal before seeing the movie, because the ending would’ve been enough to make me pay it forward.

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Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, drama, one of the year's worst

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