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Movies
'Pay It Forward'

Best-laid plans: Young boy looks for hope in cynical world in 'Pay It Forward'

Friday, October 20, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Your reaction to "Pay It Forward" may depend on how much of a cynic you are -- in other words, how much you resemble the characters in the movie, whose bitterness largely precludes them from seeing the possibility that life can get better or that any of us can make a difference.

 
 
'Pay It Forward'


Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence

Players: Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment.

Director: Mimi Leder.

Web site: payitforward.
warnerbros.com

Critic's call: 3 stars.

   
 

Some critics have already condemned this film for being schmaltzy and manipulative. Well, Frank Capra was schmaltzy. Alfred Hitchcock was manipulative. These qualities do not automatically disqualify a movie from being worthy of your time and money.

Granted, "Pay It Forward" hardly ranks with the better works of those classic filmmakers. Director Mimi Leder ("The Peacemaker," "Deep Impact") offers meaningful visual contrasts but exhibits some clumsiness in advancing the story and providing some small but telling points of character development.

I suspect the allegations of schmaltz are tied to the film's premise. Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment), age 11, walks into his social studies class on the first day of school and finds a teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), with a disfigured face and a daunting assignment: Find a way to change the world and then put it into action.

Trevor takes the assignment more seriously than even Eugene, who doesn't really expect his students to carry it out. The boy starts out by giving a homeless man (James Caviezel) a meal, a shower and a place to sleep for the night. He doesn't tell his mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), who works two jobs to make ends meet and is a recovering alcoholic on a very shaky wagon. His father, Ricky (Jon Bon Jovi) is a deadbeat and a batterer who shows up every so often.

Why wouldn't Trevor want to change his world? His motivation is more personal than it is altruistic. The plan is simple: If someone does you a favor, don't pay it back. Pay it forward by doing a favor for three other people, including (perhaps preferably) complete strangers. And then they pay it forward to three people each, and pretty soon you have random acts of kindness multiplying geometrically until humanity finally proves itself worthy of the name.

But Trevor's best-laid plans -- which include playing matchmaker for his mom by inviting Eugene to his house -- don't seem to be working, or so he thinks. We know otherwise. Still, life's dark edges keep clawing at the characters, whose lives define the phrase "quiet desperation." Even when it appears that everything will work out, fate has one more trauma left in reserve.

That, I believe, is where the charge of manipulation comes in. Are Leder and screenwriter Leslie Dixon ("The Thomas Crown Affair") trying shamelessly to wring tears from our eyes, to play false with our feelings? I know that the movie's climactic incident comes straight from the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. The other big emotional scene, a fiery rant by Eugene in which he talks about his disfigurement, was invented by the filmmakers (so is Eugene, for that matter -- in the book, he is a black Vietnam veteran).

But we should not curse the darkness in this case -- it keeps the movie grounded in some sort of reality, and it plays true to the film's underlying view of the human condition that even progress must be accompanied by a certain amount of pain. And isn't Trevor's plan basically what is preached by the religions most of us claim to follow?

I like the way Leder contrasts the dusty working-class environment of the main characters with the unreal glitz visible just over the hill in the city where they live -- Las Vegas, that shrine to big hopes, last gasps, big gambles and wild, unlikely dreams.

Almost all of the characters are damaged in some way, physically or emotionally. Spacey starts out with the staccato, weary monotone of Lester Burnham from "American Beauty," but we discover that the fire still burns inside Eugene -- he just can't afford to be singed any more. Hunt gives a convincing portrayal of a blue-collar woman addicted to all of her bad habits.

But it is young Osment who carries the movie on his small but sturdy shoulders, investing Trevor with the kind of passion that makes us root for him to succeed and makes us believe that he could actually carry out his plan. He demonstrates that his performance in "The Sixth Sense" was no fluke.

Or are you a cynic about child actors, too?



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