When pabulum is as well done as Pay It Forward, it’s almost possible to ignore its saccharine center. This film has the high-minded seriousness of a secular sermon, expressing the hope that despite the current state of our world, one individual can actually change things for the better by unselfishly helping others.
Director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, The Peacemaker) displays such unbridled affection for the story (screenwriter Leslie Dixon adapted Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel) that she actually makes this treacle go down easy. Leder also draws out complex, heartfelt performances from Kevin Spacey (trading his cool mannerisms for fragile vulnerability), Helen Hunt (embodying a flawed, lower-class single mom with a conviction she lacked in the overrated As Good As It Gets) and Haley Joel Osment, that rare child actor who radiates a calm maturity when faced with situations that would unnerve most adults.
Seventh-grade social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Spacey), disfigured by burn scars, funnels his passion into the classroom where he challenges students to effect positive change. Trevor McKinney (Osment), inspired by Simonet’s call to action, decides not only to help people in need, but encourage them to subsequently perform random acts of kindness for others.
Trevor’s generosity begins at home when he engineers a blind date for his alcoholic mother, Arlene (Hunt). Jittery and defensive, she’s caught off guard by her attraction to Eugene. Meanwhile, a reporter (Jay Mohr) is trying to uncover the origin of the pay-it-forward “movement,” which has seen some unexpected manifestations beyond Trevor’s control.
Pay It Forward is set primarily in Las Vegas, that glittering citadel of perpetual reinvention, yet focuses on characters who find remodeling themselves to be a nearly impossible task. This cloying, scattershot film could stand more of that verisimilitude instead of falling back on the easy comfort of shallow platitudes.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.