Pay It Forward is the kind of Hollywood pabulum that can be either endearing or grating. In this case, with a strong cast and a nifty narrative structure that takes the movie full circle, it’s unfortunate the results aren’t more endearing.
The movie falls under the weight of its own lofty ambitions and yearning to make a difference. A heavy-handed plot twist toward the end takes the characters into far more serious territory than the emotionally-scattered preceding two hours really warrant. There’s also a quasi-preachy tone that permeates the movie in a very “After School Special” sort of way.
Viva Las Vegas
PG-13 for language, violence, adult themes
Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) plays Trevor McKinney, a seventh grader obsessed with a year-long assignment given by his new social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey, American Beauty).
The students are to think of an idea to change the world and then put it into action.
Trevor conceives the idea of “pay it forward”, wherein, after somebody does you a favor, you do a favor for three more people, who in turn do likewise until the world is full of shiny, happy people. Instead of paying somebody back, you pay it forward to the power of three.
His classmates deride the concept, but Eugene sees the desire burning in Trevor’s heart. From there forward, a deep and personal relationship is built between the teacher and his very young pupil.
Trevor’s desire to make the “pay it forward” dream happen is driven by a need to get out of the crappy (to put it politely) world in which he has to live. His mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt, Dr. T and the Women), is an alcoholic single mother working double duty as a waitress at both a strip club and a casino. Adding salt to repeatedly re-opened wounds, her abusive ex-husband (rocker-turned-actor Jon Bon Jovi in a bearably brief cameo) keeps coming back, along with his old bad habits.
As played by Osment, a 12-year-old who’s already been nominated for an Oscar, Trevor is a convincing and sympathetic character. Osment is able to give credence to the rather weighty conversations he carries on with Eugene.
The boy’s ambitions are so all-consuming, he skips class when his own attempts at paying it forward fall flat, thereby punishing himself for things largely out of his control.
Then again, when you try to set up your teacher with your own mother, things can be tricky.
That romantic storyline manages to generate a bit of a spark, but the believability factor is tested. While both Eugene and Arlene have troubled pasts that have left their hearts aching, they are polar opposites. Eugene lives life by routine and needs everything in its place; Arlene is… well, Arlene is a mess.
Pay It Forward
A promising start to the movie’s chain of events finds a lawyer paying it forward to a reporter (Jay Mohr, Jerry Maguire) by mysteriously providing a brand new Jaguar after the reporter’s beatnik car is mowed down by a criminal on the run.
The reporter goes on to investigate the whole “pay it forward” phenomenon and, in a way, guides the audience through the experience. But the screenplay bogs down after it starts packing on layer after layer of misfortune, abuse, lost souls, and waywardness.
Pay It Forward fails to achieve a sense of euphoria from all the good these characters are spreading around. It focuses so much on the bad, there’s not enough room to feel joy. If ever there was Hollywood material begging to make people happy, this would be it. But instead, the screenplay (based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde) opts to take a turn down a dark road and tries to meld the bleak with the optimistic.
Under Mimi Leder’s (The Peacemaker) direction, the movie can’t decide on what it wants to be. Instead of creating an inspirational movie that lingers in the mind after its conclusion, she has created one that is mostly dismissed on the drive home.