Milk of Human Blindness

Pay It Forward is so sweet it should sicken, but the sugar won't be denied

Based on the previously unpublished novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, the screenplay by Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire, Outrageous Fortune) offers a symbolic cross section of contemporary Americana that grows more plausible as the movie simultaneously alarms and soothes our paranoid brain cells. For instance, convinced that his altruistic (yet ironically selfish) attempt to unite his teacher and his mother has failed, little Trevor decides to run away. With an understanding only another fatherless boy could muster, Eugene takes Arlene straight to the bus station, where he not only locates the child, but -- with a shocking display of vehemence bordering on exorcism -- savagely defends him from a child molester. The movie's sappy spoon-feeding grows tedious at times, but the show of warts is commendable and provides nearly ample balance.

It's a little bit sickening to be sounding the Oscar trumpet so far in advance, but the performances -- purposefully clunky, junky and funky -- are by far this production's strongest suit. As if it weren't enough to receive fine supporting work from Jon Bon Jovi in a wife-beater shirt as Trevor's deranged father, and Angie Dickinson as an absentee, alcoholic grandmother (looking for all the world like some extra out of Ironweed), the other adults arrive far above expectations. Caviezel instills his artless dodger with hangdog hope, and, for most of the story, Mohr's scoop-seeker is, fittingly, probing yet unpleasant, like some inaccurate rectal thermometer. Topping the bill, Hunt is willing to spend half the movie looking like a train wreck, and it's to her credit that she actually manages to hypnotize us into buying her as a working-class bimbo, not just expensive A-list meat dressed up as a fake prole. Her scenes with Spacey -- who delivers his most vulnerable and expressive performance to date -- provide plenty of emotional pyrotechnics, a welcome adjustment from the whirling cameras and effects of Leder's first two outings. When Eugene explains to Arlene, from experience, that all a father needs to do to destroy a child is simply to not love him, the resonance haunts the theater.

Now, with regard to the kid. Yes, as his work in The Sixth Sense (give or take a couple of straight-to-video, animated Disney projects) attests, Osment is a superb young actor, capable of holding his own in extreme close-up. The problem here is that this character doesn't allow him to stretch very far from the role that made him famous. Adoring pro wrestling and asking smart questions of his elders ("My idea -- do you think it's good, or were you just being teachery?"), he's a perfect preadolescent, but the script doesn't give him adequate room to breathe. Besides -- despite the ethereal, New Agey strokes Dixon uses to paint him -- he's just way too young to be waxing messianic.

Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment and Kevin Spacey load up Pay It Forward with acting talent, even if the kid doesn't have as much to work with.
David James
Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment and Kevin Spacey load up Pay It Forward with acting talent, even if the kid doesn't have as much to work with.

Details

Rated R

Pay It Forward will be prompting a lot of talk this season, and possibly even some action, but there's nothing particularly new or intriguing about its elements. Goodness knows we've seen enough irritable professors fighting to educate reactionary youths (Couldn't Eminem just hand out library cards?), and bum dads are a dime a thousand. By the end, when Leder has gained our undivided attention, it's a shame she decides to descend into pabulum -- a candlelight vigil by way of a Coke commercial. (Jane Siberry's "Calling All Angels" wafts sweetly throughout, but Courtney Love's "Violet" would have said plenty more.) All in all, it's good to know that this gargantuan inspirational pamphlet isn't foolproof (if it were, Warner Bros. would be obliged to pay forward their copious returns). To escape the reprogramming, ask yourself this question: If someone gives you a ration of shit, should you also pay that forward?

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