Pay It Forward, starring Oscar darlings Haley Joel Osment, Kevin Spacey, and Helen Hunt, is the story of a Las Vegas 7th grader who gets an assignment to change the world and sets out to do it. He devises what is basically a pyramid-scheme of random acts of kindness. You do three big favors for someone, and they each do three big favors for three other people and so on until the whole world is holding hands and singing Kum-bah-yah. Sounds great. Unfortunately, like a real pyramid scheme, someone always gets the shaft in the end. In this case, it's the audience.
See, the producers apparently didn't believe that it was enough to just tout the virtues of kindness. They had to show that world is really a terrible, terrible place, and that's why we should be good to each other. So, in that vein, Forward piles hurt upon hurt, degradation upon degradation, until you are almost buried in depression. "Now" it says, "Now you are in just the right mindset. Now you feel just guilty enough about the state of the world to do something about it. Now you too have to go out and Pay It Forward." I felt like I was in a charlatan sales seminar where they break you down, whip you up, and then bring out the huge set of steak knives for only three easy payments of $199.95.
Kevin Spacey, as the inspirational history teacher, is covered in burns. He had a terribly abusive childhood. Helen Hunt, as the embattled single mother, is a drunk. She had a terribly abusive childhood. Haley Joel is definitely having a terrible, though not yet necessarily abusive, childhood. It's like the writers had a little sign above their computers that said "tearjerker," so they didn't forget. And you're not allowed to forget either. They pile it on. Finally, the coup de grace: a surprise ending that is so pointless, random, and manipulative that it's clear the filmmakers were taking no chances on anyone leaving with dry eyes. They were so intent on this being a tearjerker that I wouldn't have been surprised if they had had the employees hitting people with baseball bats on their way out of the theater.
The problem is that there is no subtlety, no finesse. Spacey's character is not only horribly burned, but was horribly burned by his own father, while trying to protect his abused mother. Not only is Helen Hunt a drunk, but she's a sleazy waitress in a sleazy bar. And she works two jobs. And she's got an abusive ex-husband. And she didn't get a good education. And, if that weren't enough, she looks awful. I didn't think it was possible to make Helen Hunt look completely unappealing, but they do it. The acting, unfortunately, is not that great either. It's almost like they thought that all the character's baggage would do the acting for them. Kevin can't seem to act from under all that makeup, and most of his lines just wisp away. Helen barks her lines out, as though being emotional and being totally impulsive are the same thing. Haley Joel has mastered the tortured-sad-defiant stare. He's learned to tear up on cue and say his lines with a perfectly timed quaver, and superbly crafted puckered quivering lips. Unfortunately, he does every scene that way, and he starts to look like a depressed chipmunk.
Angie Dickenson plays a homeless bag lady. She, too, is a drunk. They even show her warming herself over a burning trash barrel to make sure we get the point. She is a "street person". She also happens to be Helen Hunt's mother. Later, after reconciling with Hunt, she agrees to become a part of the family, but on a limited basis. But she's still going to live at the dump, in an abandoned box car. Sure, that's ok. She'll just come over to the house for a birthday party or for dinner, and then it's back to the trash barrel!
There are a few good parts to this movie. The scenes where we actually see people paying it forward are funny, touching, sad; well done. After all, it's a worthwhile idea. It's great to see the high powered attorney give away a brand new Jaguar to help a down and out reporter. There is a scene in a hospital that made me want to cheer. Unfortunately, these scenes are few and far between. The filmmakers should have severely streamlined the Hunt-Spacey-Osment storyline and expanded the chronicling of people paying it forward. After all, kindness is good. Altruism is good. But guilting people into it is not. Grade: C-
Pay It Forward is rated PG-13 for language, adult situations, and violence.
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