Pay It Forward Review

by David N. Butterworth (dnb AT dca DOT net)
November 16th, 2001

A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2001 David N. Butterworth

**1/2 (out of ****)

There's a telling scene in "Pay it Forward" in which Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) explains to Arlene McKinney (Helen Hunt) how he received the disfiguring burns which cover his entire body. By the time he's halfway through his description of the horrific events, it's clear to the audience precisely what happened, yet Eugene continues his tale to its unnecessary conclusion.

The scene is telling because it best sums up what's wrong with the picture.
Too many times in "Pay it Forward" are we given too much information. Too often are we told, or shown, how to feel. Too often are our emotions manipulated shamelessly. "Pay it Forward" would be a more powerful drama if scenes like these were truncated, allowing the viewer to use their imagination, to figure things out for themselves.

The problem might lie with screenwriter Leslie Dixon, who has adapted Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel for the screen, but overall responsibility no doubt rests with director Mimi Leder. "Pay it Forward"'s sledgehammer assault on the senses might have something to do with the fact that Leder's previous outings were the "Heaven and Earth are about to collide!" histrionics of "Deep Impact," and the nuclear terrorism of "The Peacemaker." With "Pay it Forward," Leder has simply forgotten to adapt her default bombastic style to the subject at hand.

The intriguing story concerns Spacey's tie-and-sneakers wearing Mr. Simonet giving his 7th grade Social Studies class a thought-provoking assignment on their first day of school. "Think of an idea that can change the world... and put it into action." Trevor McKinney ("The Six Sense"'s Haley Joel Osment) comes up with the inspirational idea of performing three significant favors for total strangers using the pass-it-on approach, i.e., the recipients, in turn, must perform three additional favors for others. Helen Hunt plays Trevor's alcoholic, trashy-dressing Mom who works two jobs, as a casino worker by day and as an exotic nightclub waitress by night (the film takes place in Las Vegas), and is surprised to find a bum having breakfast with her son one morning. "Hi Mom. This is Jerry."
There's really only half a film here, since the scenes involving Spacey, Hunt, and Osment are intercut with those of a newspaper reporter (Jay Mohr from "Jerry Maguire") searching for the originator of what he calls the Pay it Forward Movement. He too was the recipient of an act of random kindness, acquiring a brand new Jaguar after his car was accidentally totaled. Since we've known
from the outset exactly who came up with the pay it forward idea (a phrase that quickly becomes overused in the film), this investigative work is, again, unnecessary. And certainly less interesting.

As you would expect from the cast, the acting is solid across the board... until rocker Jon Bon Jovi shows up. He plays Arlene's estranged husband in a mysterious piece of casting. He's too clean-cut for a drunk, and too young for Hunt's character, and in their one scene together the feisty star of "Twister," "As Good as it Gets," and the recently-released "Dr. T and the Women" upstages him at every turn.

"Pay it Forward" is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. The heavy-handedness of the direction, however, makes it a lesser experience than it might have been. Do we need to see Spacey with his shirt off? No. Is Trevor's fate really necessary? No. Does the final scene have to be so long and drawn out? No. Does Thomas Newman's score have to mimic his work on "American Beauty" note for note? One wonders how that film's director (Sam Mendes) might have handled the thematic material presented here.
Like the lights of Las Vegas after dark, Spacey, Hunt and Osment all shine luminously in "Pay it Forward." But Mimi Leder's contributions--more serviceable than sensible--can best be described as interference.

David N. Butterworth
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