“Pay It Forward” is an inspirational, issue-driven drama centered on three emotionally battered people who challenge their personal limitations –and in the process develop the possibility of changing society itself. It’s an unusual film that intelligently avoids numerous potential pitfalls even if its central earnestness is ultimately inescapable. With a top-flight cast led by recent Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, along with Haley Joel Osment, again outstanding in his first feature since “The Sixth Sense,” Warner Bros. has everything it needs to promote this serious-minded, well-acted picture as one of the major prestige releases of the fall. Critical reaction will certainly be varied, and the mass audience will similarly have diverse reactions to the climactic moments, which will prove intensely moving to some viewers and too grim for others. Commercial prospects generally look strong.
Catherine Ryan Hyde’s 1999 novel concerned an 11-year-old boy whose classroom assignment — to think of a way to change the world — mushrooms into a widespread altruistic movement to alter the way human beings treat one another. Such an utopian tale could easily have been sentimentalized and schmaltzified in a self-consciously Capraesque manner, or turned into a straight message picture like the 1950 “The Next Voice You Hear,” to the point of being well-nigh unbearable. As handled by screenwriter Leslie Dixon and director Mimi Leder in her first intimate, nonaction feature, tale is still dominated by its governing Big Idea and supplemented by emotional/psychological conditions linked to factors familiar from too many TV movies and newspaper stories (child abuse, homelessness, husbandless mothers, fatherless sons, school violence, etc.). But it has also been effectively grounded in working-class reality and in the vibrant collisions and comings together of very different characters who also have some profound traits in common.
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About 20 minutes in, Leder reveals the film’s actual setting in stunning fashion; having established a lower-class neighborhood defined by dust, glaring concrete and a makeshift homeless camp, the camera suddenly rises to reveal the Luxor pyramid and the general Las Vegas skyline looming in the background. The continuing contrast of this infertile desert dominated by big money and neon glamour with emotionally crippled people grappling with a profound moral idea provides the story with an unexpectedly resonant dimension, along with visual opportunities not offered by the book’s relatively nondescript California setting.
After a teaser opening in which a flummoxed newspaper reporter (Jay Mohr) is mysteriously gifted with a new Jaguar after his old Mustang has been totaled, action rolls back four months to the first day of seventh grade for young Trevor McKinney (Osment). Capturing the attention of Trevor and the class as a whole, social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Spacey) delivers a bracing argument on behalf of knowing something about the world in order to be able to cope with it once they’re out on their own, then ups the ante with an extra-credit, yearlong assignment: “Think of an idea to change our world — and put it into action.”
A latch-key kid whose father has taken off and whose mother works two jobs, Trevor first has the idealistic notion of giving shelter to a homeless drug addict, Jerry (James Caviezel), in the garage. This doesn’t go down too well with his mom, Arlene (Hunt), an alcoholic barmaid in a permanent rut of bad-hair days.
Eugene’s problems are both more apparent and concealed. A fastidious, bespectacled fellow who wears white sneakers with his suits and hands out pocket dictionaries to all his students so they can look up the big words he favors, he also has serious scars over most of his face. Asked by the admiring Trevor how he got them, he refuses to answer, and it becomes increasingly clear that this is a man whose orderly manner and professional confidence cork a barrelful of hurt and anguish.
Despite Jerry’s lapse back into addiction, Trevor remains dedicated to his idea that people should “pay it forward” — rather than “paying back” for favors already done, if human beings could find it within themselves to do significant good deeds for others who can’t accomplish such acts on their own, the very tenor of the world could change. Working things out mathematically, Trevor figures that if one person were to help three people, and those three each helped three people and so on, the snowball effect would soon be felt.
On a purely selfish level, Trevor is motivated to find a father, and makes humorously transparent efforts to push Eugene and his mother together. Although under a pledge to stay off men for a year and feeling unworthy of the teacher’s superior intellect, Arlene softens to this idea much sooner than does Eugene, whose emotional and physical scars would seem to have made him banish the idea of romantic intimacy from his life. Eventually it happens, but not without difficulty and continuing hesitancy.
Unbeknownst to any of them, the idea of “pay it forward” has begun seeping into the outside world, and Mohr’s reporter is tracking down the story on an unlikely path, from the lawyer who gave him the Jag through an imprisoned criminal and finally to a homeless hag (an initially unrecognizable Angie Dickinson, in a rare non-glam role). Startling conclusion is upsetting but feels apt in its muted echo of the origins of Christianity, with a motley band of disciples being the ones to spread the Word to a world that may or may not be ready to hear it.
In a role that allows him to retain a healthy share of his customary command and quick-mindedness but also demands the revelation of deep vulnerability, Spacey creates another indelible characterization. Eugene is a man who, for the sake of day-to-day comfort and sustained sanity, has constructed a thick protective shell, and Spacey subtly illuminates his deeply conflicting desires to burst out of it and to stay safely where he is.
It will undoubtedly rankle some that a white actor has been cast in a part that in the novel was written as a black man, one even more disfigured and with only one eye. The teacher’s race was not a central issue in the book, although it did bestow his withdrawn, outsider status with an extra dimension. Situation will once again raise such questions as color-blind casting, the stated positions of some black male stars against performing in interracial romantic stories and so on, but the issue in no way changes what the novel and the film are about, which is human nature.
Willing to look like a fright with horrible bleached hair and generally classless getup, Hunt is on firm ground in a role that inevitably recalls her single mom in “As Good as It Gets.” And Osment truly is as good as it gets where kid thesps are concerned; endearing but never cloying as a boy resigned to picking up his passed-out mom’s vodka bottles late at night but not to growing up without a father in the house. He brings the requisite brightness, determination, hurt and optimism to a multifaceted role.
Mohr’s appearances as the desperate reporter come off as too frantic once the delicate balance of the rest of the drama has been established, while Caviezel and Jon Bon Jovi, the latter as Trevor’s let-the-good-times-roll biological father whose unexpected appearance throws a monkey wrench into everything, are OK.
In general, Leder’s location shooting is markedly superior to her handling of scenes that were obviously shot in a studio; the latter are often straightforward to the point of visual dullness. Behind-the-scenes contributions are solid, if unremarkable, although Thomas Newman’s score proves useful in establishing the off-center tone.