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Pay It Forward

  oscar shmaltz
Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey watch Haley Joel Osment channel the spirit of Billy Ray Cyrus.

2000, Warner Bros.
All Rights Reserved

If life wasn't dreary enough, along comes "Pay It Forward" (IMDb listing) to darken already gray skies. Sure, the film might seem like a walk in the park from the advertising materials, but bravely, "Forward" dares to examine life's realistic struggles for the camera. For a time, the film succeeds wildly. Then the inevitable guillotine of doubt comes flooding into the picture and for some unforeseen reason, the filmmakers decide to turn their film into an anthem for damaged people. Warner Brothers would like to believe that their film will heal the world. At best, "Pay It Forward" is simply a patch job.

Set in Las Vegas, "Pay It Forward" tells the story of Trevor (Haley Joel Osmet), a 7th grader who is given an assignment by his social studies teacher, Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey), to devise up a way to change the world. With an absent father, class bullies tormenting him, and a daily bike ride to school where he passes homeless shantytowns, Trevor decides to invent a scheme for good deeds called Paying It Forward. The project works when one person does a good deed for a stranger, and instead of gratitude, the stranger must do three good deeds for other strangers. When a reporter in Los Angeles (Jay Mohr) becomes a recipient of a Pay It Forward, he sets out to find the origin of the system. Back in Las Vegas, Trevor begins to push his alcoholic mother Arlene (Helen Hunt) into a romance with Mr. Simonet (himself afflicted with burn scars all over his body) so his own Pay It Forward pyramid is complete.

An ace with action films ("The Peacemaker," "Deep Impact"), director Mimi Leder has chosen "Pay It Forward" as her big step into dramatic pictures. It's a sentimental film, yet I can't help but miss Leder's gift for camera movement and action staging. "Forward" is a layered story of sorrow, loss, and those people who try to transcend the lousy cards they were bestowed with. Based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, "Forward" features multiple storylines detailing the journey of the Pay It Forward concept. Either through poor screenwriting or an off day for Leder, "Forward" is filled to the brim with hackneyed, almost offensive stereotypes of real life people whose plight and reaction to pain in their lives would be far more complicated than the presentations here.

"Forward's" most blatant two offenses are actor David Ramsey's performance as a cartoonish gangsta hoodlum who helps the reporter with tips to find the "Pay It Forward" creator, and rocker Jon Bon Jovi's cameo as Trevor's abusive father (complete with heavy metal music and "wife beater" shirt). Both actors are lost with wafer-thin characters that bring unintentional laughs, and "Forward" is even so bold as to make the hoodlum character likable! Treating the character as someone you would want to have a beer and a laugh with instead of the truth: a criminal who belongs in jail. The material seems to be coming from a personal place for the author, but Leder has little understanding of "Forward's" grave issues, such as child abuse and alcoholism.

Helen Hunt suffers from the Michelle Pfeiffer syndrome that haunted the actress when she starred in 1991's "Frankie and Johnny." Pfeiffer was accused of being too beautiful to play her working-class waitress character, and I believe that Hunt suffers from the same standards. It tough to separate Arlene, the alcoholic, single mother, from Hunt, the striking actress. She doesn't aid her cause with her "trashy" nails, raccoon eyes, and platinum bleached hair. It comes off incredibly false, even if Hunt gives it the good old college try. Kevin Spacey has a thin layer of prosthetic burns to work with, but even with a prop like that, Spacey relies on his usual acting bells and whistles. Saddled with some truly abhorrent dialog ("Words are all that I have!"), the scenery-chewing Spacey does all he can to wring a decent performance out of a lukewarm character. It's not that Spacey or Hunt do inferior jobs, they are just miscast in roles that require performers with a bit more anonymity.

Like a cowboy who needs to kill seven people with only his trusty six-shooter at his side, "Pay It Forward" runs completely out of ammo long before the conclusion. A conclusion that reeks of pure desperation. Leder, not content with keeping the film's realism in check, goes for the big, heartwarming finale that features a final shot so similar to "Field of Dreams" that I hope Universal is planning litigation. The happy-ish ending doesn't even make sense in the broader concept of the film. It makes the characters martyrs instead of the survivors that the film's message is pushing for. "Pay It Forward" means well, but through poor story construction and the filmmaker's questionable handling of the material, the film ends up leaving you not with that shiny glow of satisfaction that you can change the world, but with more of a defeated feeling that you can't change anything, and you're better off dead. Yeeesh!

Filmfodder Grade: C

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