Movie Review By Casey McCabe
"Pay It Forward," — a film with uplifting written all over it — aims for the fences and hits a big ball of emotion right out of the park. Only when you think about it do you recognize that screenwriter Leslie Dixon and Director Mimi Leder have put the ball on a tee and moved the fences in.
Of course you're not supposed to be circumspect with this sort of film, lest you be labeled a curmudgeon. If I may speak for the oft maligned and misunderstood curmudgeons, we do have hearts. What tends to break them is watching talented people suddenly, mysteriously lose their smarts.
Curmudgeons also tend to have a soft spot for Kevin Spacey, an actor who conveys more drama in his razor sharp monotone than others do shouting from the rooftops. In Pay It Forward he plays an erudite and mildly disfigured social studies teacher recently relocated to Las Vegas. On the first day of class he lays down a semester long challenge: think of a way to change the world for the better and put it into action. True to Spacey form, this is delivered without a hint of treacle. He's just determined to make his seventh graders consider a world outside their favorite shopping mall.
The only one up to the challenge is the smallest and wisest student, played by Haley Joel Osment, the talented young Sixth Sense actor. He comes up with the theory of paying it forward: that good deeds passed along instead of paid back could have an exponential affect. He first puts it into action by adopting a homeless man, causing his mother, played by Helen Hunt, to storm into Spacey's classroom demanding an explanation of the homework assignment. Spacey correctly sizes her up as the trampy, semi-hysterical, not particularly bright casino cocktail waitress she is and coolly dresses her down.
Tragically, this is the last we see of Spacey's world-wise teacher. Osment's second good deed is to set his single mother up with a good man. And as the film takes a sharp turn into an opposites attract romance, Spacey turns into a weak-kneed love-starved suitor, fumbling for words and dumbing himself down for the dubious prize of Hunt's abused alcoholic. It's true that Helen Hunt has never looked better, at least in terms of well-displayed abs and breasts. And I suppose her character is something of a saint. Like the prostitute with the heart of gold, we now have the heroic trailer trash single mom as a trusty archetype. But in both cases it often requires ignoring some of the realities that made them what they are in the first place.
Behind Spacey's literal scars, Hunt's midriff, and Osment's pensive little face, there's an interesting film still waiting to be made. The filmmakers take a stab with a separate storyline featuring Jay Mohr as an investigative reporter who's the recipient of wildly generous good deed from a stranger. Mohr pops in and out as he traces the Pay It Forward chain back to its Las Vegas origins. By the time he gets there, however, the film has already wound up for its last great swing that – as long we're in the metaphor – appears to be a direct lift from "Field of Dreams."
As the immortal Leslie Gore once said, it's my party and I'll cry if I want to. So cry if you want at Pay It Forward. Us curmudgeons just can help popping all those balloons.
© 2000 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 10/25/00
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