Pay It Forward



US 2000
dir Mimi Leder
scr Leslie Dixon, based on novel by Catherine Hyde Ryan
cin Oliver Stapleton
stars Haley Joel Osment, Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Jay Mohr
122 minutes

Los Angeles, the present. A news reporter (Mohr) turns up at a house siege only for his car wrecked by an escaping gunman. A complete stranger then walks up to him out of the rain and hands over the keys to his Jaguar. Intrigued, the reporter investigates what turns out to be a chain of similar ‘favours’ leading back to Las Vegas, three months before… To the day 11-year-old schoolboy Trevor McKinney’s (Osment) social studies class is set an unusual project by teacher Mr Simonet (Spacey): think of an idea to change the world, and put it into action.

Trevor devises ‘paying it forward’ – performing an act of random, significant generosity for three people, preferably complete strangers. Each of them must then, in turn, pay it forward to three other people. After an abortive first try with a homeless man (James Caviezel), Trevor turns his attentions closer to home – he plots to bring together his mother Arlene (Hunt), with the facially-scarred, emotionally withdrawn Mr Simonet. Kevin’s violent, alcoholic father (Jon Bon Jovi) walked out on his family some years before, and Arlene continues to struggle with the bottle…

There are promising elements here – the strong cast, especially the dependable Spacey; the underused suburban Vegas locations; the intriguingly unusual premise;. But all of these elements end up being part of the problem, not part of the solution. Pay It Forward is one of the worst American movies of 2000 – or indeed of any year, fascinating as an example of how low Hollywood can sink, but, by any other standard, virtually unwatchable.

First, Spacey. His presence, plus Thomas Newman’s trademark plinky-plonky music over the (incredibly cheap-looking) opening credits, featuring aerial shots of orderly suburbia, seem deliberately intended to stir memories of American Beauty. Bad move. And while Spacey is too much of a pro to turn in any kind of bad or embarrassing performance, it’s unfortunate that his name on the posters, alongside those of Hunt, Osment and Mohr, will draw in punters who might otherwise have wisely given this trash the wide berth it deserves.

On the evidence of this movie and Mimi Leder’s last, Deep Impact, she doesn’t seem to give her actors any positive direction at all. The Kevin Spaceys and Vanessa Redgraves of this world are strong enough to cope. Actors who are ‘merely’ very good, like Caviezel and Mohr here, come out looking stupid – which, as anyone who saw their work in, respectively, The Thin Red Line and Go will know, is a long way from the truth.

Next, Vegas: America’s fastest-growing, most architecturally diverse, most cinematically under-used city. Pay It Forward echoes the TV miniseries of Stephen King’s The Stand, where Las Vegas was the Devil’s lair, the natural home of foul and evil spirits. How ironic, this picture tells us, that Sin City is the starting point for a tidal wave of goodness that floods out over the whole of the USA – and, perhaps the world. How tritely patronising, more like.

Finally, the premise: the world can be saved by good acts. In the hands of a good scriptwriter and a good director, this might just be a dynamite bit of high concept. But in the hands of Leslie Dixon and Mimi Leder, we end up with a stream of offensive, poisonous bilge.

Pay It Forward is based on a novel of the same title by Catherine Ryan Hyde, and it’s a safe bet that much of what’s wrong with the movie starts with the book: the implausibility of just about everything that happens; the crassness of its feelgood millennial fantasy; the bizarre attitude towards alcohol (if you drink you’re a drunk, very probably violent and a danger to your familt); the oddness of performing just three generous acts, but no more (why?).

It’s also extremely troubling that the film’s one genuinely risky act of generosity – Arlene giving her husband one more chance when he ‘unexpectedly’ turns up at just the wrong moment after so many years away – is held up as a heinous ‘mistake’ for which Arlene is made to suffer. From what we see of the husband, he seems convincingly ‘sober’ enough to take a chance on, but no – barely has he moved back in than he’s straight back on the booze, and Arlene has to go through a wringer of guilt. Unlike, of course, her alcoholic mother (an unflatteringly-lit Angie Dickinson) whose idea of ‘paying it forward’ involves helping a violent felon to escape the law.

These lapses are typical of the script’s muddle-headed treatment of serious issues – there’s a nasty whiff of the religious right about much of the movie. Not just the Temperance-League presentation of alcohol, but also the way society’s ills will somehow be magically cured by individual whims rather than, say, local or national government: the only example of wider ‘paying it forward’ involves a mystery benefactor donating computers to needy children. And why must the altruism be so regimented, and so very public – paying it forward only becoming a serious ‘movement’ (the movie’s phrase) when it’s shown on national TV. And why is there only a single chain of events linking Mohr (whose character must be the greatest bloodhound reporter of all time) and Osment – not much evidence of a widespread ‘phenomenon’ there.

To be fair, the book’s scope may well have been greater and more convincing – but that still doesn’t excuse the script’s shocking shallowness of the characterisation, the muddiness of the dual timeframe, the predictability of the visible-a-mile-off ‘tragic ending’ and the jaw-dropping schmaltz of the candle-light coda. Not to mention the relentlessly laughable dialogue. The Hunt/Spacey romance only gets going (Arlene screaming “I respect you!” as she turns up late for a date) as a favour to her and Osment. Simonet is pointlessly verbose – he ‘only has words’ – which means he gets to patronise Arlene by explaining some arcane term she’s already familiar with, and he gives a truly nonsensical reason (his ‘routine’) for resisting Trevor’s meddling attempts at matchmaking. Trevor, meanwhile, is of course Just An Ordinary Kid, so he’s given one Ordinary Kid character trait – he’s into WWF wrestling – to compensate for the Holy Joe weirdness of the rest of him. Osment, by the way, is a talented young actor, but anyone who thinks he’s something special has clearly not seen enough Lucas Black movies.

And what does Leder – a Spielberg protege, no less – do to make this crass millennial feelgood fantasy palatable, or even bearable? Nothing. When does she give any indication of even trying to make her film the slightest bit original, or different, or even visual? Never. At every turn, her contribution is to make everything as obviously, crudely manipulative as possible, leaving no cliche of sound or vision unturned. This utter lack of flair and wit is a textbook example of how not to direct a movie. At least Deep Impact had those spectacular (if brief) shots of the comet hitting, and the devastation wreaked by the tidal waves – filmed by the second unit and the effects people, it’s safe to assume, far away from Leder’s ham fists.

It seems appropriate to end this review by performing a random act of generosity to the perfect strangers who are reading these words. Here it is: AVOID PAY IT FORWARD. Now, all you have to do is pass it on to three people – any three.

“Is the world just shit?” sobs Trevor at one crucial point. No, son, just your movie.


For a shorter review click here

22nd January 2001