Pay it Forward
Reviewed by Ned Daigle
Rating: 2 Beans
his movie was arguably one of the most lambasted and despised films of 2000. The pre-release hype was so extreme that everyone and their grandmother expected "Pay it Forward" to be the event movie of the year, the one to capture Oscar gold. However, it was critically crucified, was a box office disaster and didn't even garner a single nomination come Academy Award time. Is it as bad as they say? No. But it still isn't very good.
The fundamental problem with "Pay it Forward" is the script itself, which overstuffs enough story for three different movies altogether trying to do too many things at once, ultimately leaving everything half-baked. The shameless tear-jerking and manipulation thrown in to supersede story and character development doesn't help things either.
The plot, or at least one of the plots, should be familiar by now. Haley Joel Osment plays a reserved junior high student who becomes inspired by his teacher, played by Kevin Spacey. Spacey gives the class an extra-credit assignment which simply states "Think of an idea to change the world, and put it into action.". He uses this assignment to get the kids to think more globally; however, Osment takes it very seriously and develops an idea: He will do a great act of kindness to three people, and in return, each of those people will do great acts of kindness to three people and so on and so on. Sort of a pyramid-scheme of unsolicited kindness. Don't pay it back, pay it forward. Get it?
Now this is more than enough for any one movie, showing the youngster put this plan into action and developing his relationship with the teacher and examining his homelife with his white-trash alcoholic mother, played by Helen Hunt. But "Pay it Forward" is not content with just this. The film actually starts 4 months later. A television reporter (Jay Mohr), after having his car demolished during a police hostage situation, is given a new Jaguar by a stranger and is told to "pay it forward". Instead of just doing so, the reporter investigates and backtracks the "pay it forward" scheme to find its source. Again, this in and of itself would be enough for a movie on its own.
But "Pay it Forward" ALSO wants to be an opposites-attract romance, by having Osment try and get his mom and the teacher together and develop into a couple, and thus he'll have a family again. Awwww...ain't it sweet?
Sweet doesn't really begin to cover it. "Pay it Forward" is almost gag-inducing in its syrupy earnestness. Not only do we have the lonely fatherless waif (Osment), we have the emotionally-damaged alcoholic mother (Hunt), and the teacher whose body is covered by burn scars but has worse scars on his soul (Spacey). There are tearful moments galore. The romance between Hunt and Spacey is so obvious and poorly written that you can pretty much see every development coming miles away: accusations, miscommunications, blubbering confessionals etc. This whole sub-plot should have been jettisoned at the word "go".
So with all of this going on, "Pay it Forward" lumbers and lurches back and forth in time from Osment trying to work his acts of kindness to Mohr (who has made a career out of playing obnoxious yuppies and does so again here, much to the film's detriment) traveling from person to person, hearing their stories, and trying to find the "pay it forward" mastermind.
Aside from Mohr, the acting is very good, even if the actors aren't given anything very challenging to do. Osment is saucer-eyed and sullen (much like his role in "The Sixth Sense"), Spacey is great as always (although the script inexplicably makes him go from an articulate, anal-retentive, intellectual to a mumbling half-idiot at the drop of a hat when in the presence of Hunt), and Hunt does what she can with her bleached locks and racoon mascara swilling vodka every ten seconds or so.
Much has been said about the ending of this movie, about how it is the most inexcusable example of audience manipulation ever to be put to film. I will have to agree with that assumption and add that not only is it shameless and soapy, but it is entirely pointless and does nothing to help an already confused movie. It feels tacked on simply for the sake of it, and inspires immediate contempt.
Yes, "Pay it Forward" had all the earmarks to be a contender, but it needed lots of script tweaking and restraint. As it stands, it's a film nobody can really warm up to; and for a film that's sole reason for being is to inspire positive emotion, that criticism is a death sentence.
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