Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:02 - Released 10/20/00

As 2000 draws to a close, it becomes ever more clear how disappointing a year it has been for movies. Films like Men Of Honor, The Legend Of Bagger Vance, and Bounce, all crammed full of past Oscar winners, have all been plagued with serious flaws, and despite the presence of last year's best actor, Kevin Spacey (American Beauty), 1997's best actress, Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets), and 12-year-old 1999 supporting actor nominee Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense), Mimi Leder's Pay It Forward does little to arrest the trend.

It takes a good script to make a good movie, and Pay It Forward illustrates the importance of remembering this. Director Leder obviously saw promise in the concept — a young boy's attempt to change the world in order to complete a challenging social studies assignment — but didn't notice, or care, that its screenplay is full of trite, melodramatic movie clichés and logical discrepancies. Leder may think that award-winning actors are all that is needed for an award-winning film. But the problems inherent in Leslie Dixon's screenplay (based on the book by Catherine Ryan Hyde) will not go away simply because she was able to net three highly marketable actors for the leading roles.

Osment is Trevor McKinney, a smart, precocious 7th grader from Las Vegas who is fully aware of his mother's alcoholism and his absent father's tendency toward violence on the few occasions when he does show up. But his problems at home don't stop him from taking his schoolwork seriously, and when his social studies teacher, Mr. Eugene Simonet (Spacey), gives the class an extra credit assignment to "change the world," Trevor comes up with the Pay It Forward system. One person does a favor for three others, and each of those people must "pay it forward" — that is, they must do similar favors for three others. The favors must be something big, something the person can't do for him- or herself. This system, if properly followed, would increase exponentially, like a pyramid scheme, resulting in happy fulfillment for everybody and a kinder, gentler society.

As Trevor's mom, Hunt is playing virtually the same role she played in As Good As It Gets, with different hair. Arlene is a blonde bombshell with two jobs and too much makeup, but she's also a thoughtful, intelligent, caring mother, except when she's on a bender. Her introduction to Trevor's plan is finding a homeless heroin addict (James Caviezel) sleeping in her garage. When she confronts Mr. Simonet about his assignment, there is instant friction, and I don't mean the good kind. Simonet is an Obsessive/Compulsive burn victim who has trouble communicating with people over 12 years old, but he soon finds himself on the boy's short list of possible new dads. Meanwhile, we see glimpses of a sub-plot involving an L.A. reporter (Jay Mohr) who is touched by Trevor's Pay It Forward system, apparently in a parallel universe on some other space-time continuum.

This is not a bad movie, considering the lowered standards we have come to expect this year. But it could and should be better. Spacey, Osment, and to a lesser extent, Hunt, all do well with what they have, but the story is too close to As Good As It Gets to be considered really original. Perhaps Hunt's participation emphasizes this. Again we have three people who must help each other to help themselves. Again we have an OCD sufferer brought out of his shell by Hunt's feminine wiles. Moreover, the timeline between the two story paths is a confusing collection of flashbacks and -forwards that leaves one doing complicated algebraic equations to figure how it can all work out. And lastly, there's the ending. I won't reveal the details, but let's just say that it's manipulative to the point of criminal offense. Pay It Forward is yet another example in this disappointing year of a film whose text is unworthy of its talent. ***½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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