Pay It Forward

At the end of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.,” as the camera captures a close-up of young Gertie (Drew Barrymore) with tears rolling down her cheeks, composer John William’s turns up the violins to emphasize the emotion of the moment. It was pure manipulation, but it worked. It worked because Spielberg is a master of manipulation.

Director Mimi Leder is not. While Leder is more than a competent director, her skills at handling honest, human emotions are very limited. She showed promise with her work on television’s “E.R.,” but her feature films have been more about situations than people. Leder believes that bigger is better, as witnessed in “Deep Impact.” Even her quiet moments seem noisy and distracting.

Then it comes as no surprise that her latest film, “Pay It Forward,” adapted by Leslie Dixon from Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel, seems larger-than-life yet ultimately hollow. Leder doesn’t trust her performers enough to allow them to react with any degree of emotional honesty. Heart-tugging moments become transplants.

You really want to like “Pay it Forward.” It more gentle, understanding hands, it could have been a heartwarming drama about people trying to make the world a better place. In Leder’s hands, it becomes a garish neon billboard that constantly begs for attention. She doesn’t just want you to like the film, she wants you to love it, and is blatantly willing to do anything to accomplish that task.

Dixon’s screenplay is very serviceable, even if it panders to cheap melodrama and is filled with all sorts of ambiguities. . The writer of last year’s dazzling “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” has made several changes to Hyde’s book, yet the tone remains the same. The action now takes place in Las Vegas, where teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) challenges his students to change the world.

The only student who bites is young Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment), who comes up with a plan called “Pay It Forward.” Instead of paying someone back for a favor, you pay it forward by finding three people and help them accomplish something they could not do themselves. They in return will do the same until the world is a better place to live.

The main problem with “Pay It Forward” is that all of the characters are scarred in one way or another, which means an awful lot of exposition on how and why they became that way. These scenes would normally be the stuff actors dream of, yet Leder hammers them home until they become flat and uninteresting. The characters don’t just bare their souls, they totally strip them. Every declaration is carefully scripted and directed to make an impact, but after awhile they lose their veracity.

Spacey’s teacher is earnest, trapped under burn scars on the outside and emotional scars on the inside. Spacey makes Eugene believable enough, the kind of teacher every kid dreams of getting. He wants to make a difference, if not in his life, than in his students. Eugene uses discipline and work to mask his scars, a regiment that allows him to function.

Trevor’s mom Arlene (Helen Hunt) is another story. A recovering alcoholic who works two jobs as a cocktail waitress, Arlene has little time for the son she truly loves. Hunt is impressive as a woman who has been hurt so often that her heart is black and blue. She needs something good and decent in her life besides Trevor.

That leaves it up to Trevor to push the two together, fulfilling two of his three pay outs. The other one involves Trevor helping a homeless heroin addict (James Caviezel) get back on his feet. How he accomplishes this task is one of the script and film’s weaker moments. While helping a homeless drug addict get back on their feet is one thing, inviting him into your home without telling your parent is absolutely twisted.

Trevor’s story is told as a flashback, told from the perspective of a reporter (Jay Mohr) tracking down the origins of the “Pay It Forward” phenomenon. This allows the filmmakers to introduce all sorts of colorful characters (including Angie Dickinson as a bag lady living in her car) as the reporter links them all back to Trevor.

The problem with this plot thread is that we already know Trevor is the instigator of the movement, so all of the reporter’s backtracking is a waste of time. I would rather have seen how Trevor personally affected these people than hear their testimonials.

Osment is the heart of the film, and instantly wins us over with his zestful eagerness and understanding. It’s a real performance, one that is worth watching.

I liked the message of the film, which seems like a good idea, but only in the movies. None of this would work in the real world. It helps that the film boasts such a talented cast. They are all likeable, even when the situations they are trapped in are not. The film starts off as a refreshing exercise in human responsibility, but eventually becomes a dark melodrama. It takes way too long to get to the point, and the little dances that the director and writer do to flesh out the story are clumsy.

“Pay It Forward” comes with a pedigree that can’t be ignored, but audiences looking for something truly honest and emotionally satisfying will find themselves left wanting.

PAY OFFForward thinking doesn’t cut It


Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, James Caviezel, Angie Dickinson, John Bon Jovi in a film directed by Mimi Leder. Rated PG-13. 122 Minutes.


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