Pay It Forward (2000)

13 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Pay it Forward” has the idea for a “perfect world” and I guess I can buy into it—if someone does you a favor, you pass it on to three other people. You don’t pay it back, you pay it forward. Why not? Even if the world doesn’t turn out perfect (does it ever?), at least you’ll be satisfied. You should try it sometime, but you have to do them a huge favor so they can pass it on for sure…well, maybe.

The movie “Pay it Forward” is being criticized as being “emotionally manipulative”—for me, that’s too strong a criticism. I bought the message of “paying it forward” and even felt the emotions that are conveyed in this movie. It also helps that the movie is well-written, well-made, and especially well-acted by the three leads—Academy Award winners Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, along with Academy Award nominee Haley Joel Osment, from “The Sixth Sense.” I liked “Pay it Forward” so I guess that means I didn’t mind being manipulated by this particular film. I know that last sentence is going to be used for something sooner or later if anyone ever reads this review, but you know what? I don’t care.

As the movie begins, a washed-up news reporter (Jay Mohr) brings himself into a situation he doesn’t belong—a household robbery. You can already tell this guy has put himself into many situations where he doesn’t belong. But he gets his price when the criminals get away and the police follow him. The reporter’s car, however, is crashed into in the process. So, the guy is standing in the rain with no car and no money. Suddenly, a stranger with a dog and an umbrella walks by. Of course the guy thinks the stranger is messing with him and it doesn’t make things less confusing when he gives the reporter the keys to the stranger’s new Jaguar. Why? “Call it generosity between two strangers.”

Flash back to “four months earlier,” as we meet a young boy named Trevor McKinney (Osment) who is starting junior high school. Since this is a school in Nevada, there are metal detectors in the entranceway and knife-wielding bullies (oh yeah, and some annoying, whining classmates). What is unusual at this school is his social studies class. His teacher Eugene Simonet (Spacey), an apparent burn victim (he has scars on his face), is an intellectual who uses an impressive vocabulary, has a hint of sarcasm in his speech, and a lack of condescension when teaching. The assignment for his class is to come up with an idea to change the world. (Trevor asks, “So you’ll flunk us if we don’t change the world?” Simonet replies, “You might slip by with a C.”)

This gives Trevor the idea of “paying it forward.” He brings a homeless man (James Caviezel) into his home and gives him food and bed for the night. Trevor’s mother Arlene (Helen Hunt) is angry. She wants this man out of the house. But then she sees that the homeless man paid Trevor’s favor forward by fixing the car in her garage that hasn’t run in years.

Simonet lets it down easy to Trevor that the idea is a bit preposterous. Trevor doesn’t care because “everything sucks.” Another way Trevor tries to use his idea is by helping his mother, who is a recovering alcoholic, in having a relationship with the teacher. This leads to a loving relationship that brings Simonet and Arlene together, complications with the boy’s real father (Jon Bon Jovi), and moments of truth (How did Simonet get those burns?).

This story is told in flashback while in the present time, the reporter, played by Mohr, is trying to track down the source to this whole “pay it forward” movement. He meets the man who gave him the Jag and is told that he was helped by an African-American man who got himself arrested for pulling a gun on a nurse because she wouldn’t let the man’s asthmatic daughter be treated first. And so the reporter has to find the man who got arrested and figure out why he did it, and so on. This whole subplot is a bit flawed, especially when we’re trying to keep track of events in chronological order and focus on the relationships between Simonet, Arlene, and young Trevor.

“Pay it Forward” is mostly set in Las Vegas—the streets, the homes outside of it, the desert. It’s an offbeat setting but it works. We see where Arlene works, we see how Trevor gets to and from school on his bicycle, and we see where Arlene and Trevor’s home is located. Setting the movie in Las Vegas is appropriate for utopian ideas like the central one here.

I mentioned before that I bought the film’s emotions and the movie succeeds in creating genuine feeling for the characters. The script is partially responsible, but it’s the actors who must receive high praise. Kevin Spacey is excellent as a man trying to hide his face by using words instead of a mask—his vocabulary is his mask. His lack of condescension to his students is particularly noticeable and his wit is subtle. But he’s an intellectual who knows what he’s teaching, though he doesn’t expect an idea from one of his students to actually change the world. Helen Hunt shows some of her best work since her Oscar winning role in “As Good as it Gets” as a recovering alcoholic who loves her son but is trying so desperately to show it. And then of course, there’s Haley Joel Osment, quite good and effective as Trevor. His timing is excellent and he is a perfect co-star with Spacey and Hunt. And he can also tell the differences in people—who are nice and who are not, especially when Bon Jovi comes in and almost messes everything up.

The ending is most unsatisfying. I won’t give anything away but I don’t really think that this is the right ending for this movie. It gets worse when you really consider the idea again and think about how it led to this totally unsatisfying conclusion. But until then, “Pay it Forward” is a nice movie about three complicated people and a message that gets its way across. I may have been manipulated by the emotions, but I’ll take it.

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