Pay it Forward (2000)

D: Mimi Leder
S: Haley Joel Osment, Kevin Spacey

Director Mimi Leder's adaptation of Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel (from a screenplay by Leslie Dixon) feels like it should be edgier. It is a story which has many of the key ingredients of an indie drama. If it had been shot with a low-budget, grungy feel and a no-name cast it might well have found an audience there. As is, it gets the Hollywood treatment and the texture is unsettlingly clean and professional in spite of (or arguably because of) solid work by all concerned. Set in the suburbs of contemporary Las Vegas, it is a story of losers and outsiders not too far distant from those the characters in Boys Don't Cry. Kevin Spacey (Ordinary Decent Criminal, American Beauty) plays a handicapped new teacher who gives his Las Vegas students a project to stimulate their sense of social awareness. The task: come up with an idea which will change the world and put it into practice. The trouble begins when serious young man Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense) takes the assignment to heart and invents a system called 'pay it forward' in which good deeds are not rewarded directly, but passed forward onto others who need good deeds done. He is the son of waitress/loser Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets, What Women Want), the product of a troubled environment in which mother is a recovering alcoholic who works two demeaning jobs and dad (Jon Bon Jovi) is a good-for-nothing drifter. The settings are dusty and seedy, the story is about people at the fringes of the glamour and excess of Vegas. Supporting characters include Angie Dickinson as a bag lady and Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line) as a homeless junky. There is also a Citizen Kane type reporter on the trail of the story played by Jay Mohr (Suicide Kings), but he is nothing more than a narrative device.

On its most basic thematic level, Pay it Forward is Christianity without Christ: a story of a person who preaches charity, forgiveness, and understanding and changes the world. The most effective selling point of this particular rendition of the tale is its situation in a world of the downtrodden and needy which speaks to a contemporary audience. The characters and environment are there to make this work, and there are three good actors playing the leads (backed up by good support). Yet somehow the film feels schematic and formal in a way which makes it difficult to really empathise with these people and become involved in their world. The substance is there but the trimmings are too clean. It seems solemn and preachy in the manner of the more tedious biblical epics. Sometimes a story needs to be told with gentleness and subtlety to work its way into your soul. This one has been made by a well-thumbed book of Hollywood hackmanship, and the result is well meaning but deadening.

There are points of interest. Spacey, Osment, and Hunt give good performances. Spacey registers a believable range of moods for his character as he undergoes a series of changes. Initially standoffish and pedantic, he emerges not just as good-hearted, but with enough facets to make him rounded and interesting. Osment is often too sincere for his own good, but it is a performance which captures the essence of the boy as he is written. Hunt is credible in a deglamourised role, and works hard to win our sympathies in a part which has been done many times with varying results. Caviezel is effective when he is there, but his sub-plot does peter in and out in a way which seems the result of clumsy rewriting rather than deliberate narrative irresolution. Dickinson is unrecognisable, but gives a touching performance.

This is the kind of film which has gone for the middle ground to the cost of its ability to get closer to the edge. It is well made and sincere in intention, but it lacks personality. It gets particularly tough to take as it moves towards its inevitable finale. The Christian metaphor becomes ever more pronounced and the message is spelled out in the cinematic equivalent of large neon letters. Leder handles it with patient professionalism as she does all the rest, but the result is only marginally less routine than her action blockbusters The Peacemaker and Deep Impact. At least it has a genuinely human side, and bland as it may be, at least it has heart.

There are worse movies out there, and certainly plenty which are meanspirited and exploitative. In that sense Pay It Forward has its place and should find an appreciative audience among those in search of quality 'family' entertainment (although many scenes depict lifestyles and attitudes which may not be suitable for young children even though the issues need to be addressed). This is not quite enough to make it worth recommending though.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.

Note: The Region 2 DVD features a director's commentary and a production documentary.