movie review by
Crissa-Jean Chappell


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Pay It Forward
"This was the good news," Catherine Ryan Hyde thought when her car caught on fire. After stalling in a dismal corner of Los Angeles, her old Datsun conked out and spewed smoke. Catherine dodged the flames and found two strange men sprinting toward her with a blanket. Just as she began to say her prayers, a good Samaritan phoned the fire department and the blanket-toting pair stomped out the flames. She turned to thank them but they had already disappeared, as angels often do. For months, the young Ms. Hyde carried a heavy feeling of regret. Her two nameless rescuers had risked their lives to save her own. Then she latched onto an idea. If she couldn't pay them back, she'd pay them forward.

Two decades later, her beloved best-seller, Pay It Forward, hits the big screen with a couple of Oscar-winning actors (Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt) and an underaged nominee, Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense). The script took only 14 months to traverse the Hollywood grapevine. Executive producer, Jonathan Treisman, was so moved by Hyde's unpublished manuscript, he cried. Director Mimi Leader gave the project the green light after her 13-year-old daughter read the story and begged her to shoot it. That's why these moral-minded grown-ups made sure their movie received a PG-13 rating, so families could watch it together.

The pay-it-forward notion—a pyramid scheme for kindness—has caught on with mural-painting, carol-singing middle school kids in New York's inner city. It has sparked do-gooders, such as Doris Eakes, to donate a 4.2 million dollar trust to several small colleges. These random acts of selflessness may not seem like Tinseltown material, but the Frank Capra syndrome continues with this self-conscious weepie, which attempts to gloss over a myriad of modern-day worries including substance abuse, domestic violence, teenage gangs, homelessness, and battered souls. "Think of an idea to change our world and put it into ACTION," reads the blackboard on the first day of school. That's a tall order, think Mr. Simonet's surly seventh-graders…all except saintly Trevor (Haley Joel Osment, playing another pint-sized version of the Everyman). He comes up with a big-hearted plan that requires an "extreme act of faith in the goodness of people." Or perhaps, as sourpuss Mr. Simonet suggests, a Utopian society.

At home, little Trevor has scant reason to believe in such things. These concepts belong in dictionaries—not his desolate backyard (part infertile California desert, sun-baked the color of terra-cotta, part candy-tinted neon swank: a visual metaphor that the camera milks all too often). His mom, Arlene, a booze-chugging floozy (Helen Hunt, braving a bleached-out poodle perm and busty, Brockovich ensembles) waits tables at a topless bar, when not sneaking swigs of Vodka. Meanwhile, her lonesome son is bringing over his friends, like the furry hobo with a drug problem (James Caviezel, sporting the same haunted POW look that he wore in the Thin Red Line), and cranky, self-contained Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey with a little extra padding and a wardrobe that consists of interchangeable cardigans), a social-studies teacher with a face full of zipper-shaped scars.

Where did Mr. Simonet get his horrible burns? And why is Arlene terrified of her ex-husband (who happens to be Jon Bon Jovi, though that's not the reason)? Naturally, the filmmakers have cooked up post-Freudian explanations to these pertinent questions in place of three-dimensional characterization. Bad fathers make good villains—especially when they pop up after long, convenient absences (it's called a "plot point," for those who study screenwriting).

Additional touches of crude sentimentality feature a bag lady granny who lives out of her car (Angie Dickinson), a couple of knife-wielding junior high brats who repent for their sins, and a romance between two beasts who transform into beauties. A tedious subplot involves a frazzled journalist (Jay Mohr) in search of the otherworldly origins behind Pay It Forward, which he deems a "movement." The trail takes him to a jive-talking jail inmate (a movie-of-the-week scenario that goes nowhere). Just when the pre-fabricated scenarios couldn't get any soapier, the movie pulls a final, nasty trick on its audience while a folksy ditty about angels warbles in the background…all for the sake of provoking something called an emotional response. Yes, sad endings can feel as false as happy ones.

Inspirational redemption is a high stake for any film, especially one based on a book that has launched its own "chain letter of kindness," as the chairman of Tapestry Films, J.P. Guerin, has christened "Pay It Forward." Do good deeds belong in the money-grubbing hands of Hollywood movie moguls? We're supposed to sympathize with these hackneyed characters. Instead, they come across as melodramatic stick figures, short on credibility (not to cast blame on the actors, who manage a few moments of sincerity, particularly when silent). They deserve so much better, as does their audience. Mr. Simonet was wrong. It doesn't take a Utopia to make "Pay It Forward" work—not if that perfect world only exists for two hours.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]