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With: Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, James Caviezel, Jon Bon Jovi, Angie Dickinson, David Ramsey, Gary Werntz, Colleen Flynn, Marc Donato, Kathleen Wilhoite, Liza Snyder
Written by: Leslie Dixon, based on a book by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Directed by: Mimi Leder
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence
Running Time: 123
Date: 10/12/2000

Pay It Forward (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

People Who Need People

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Pay It Forward is an actor's movie. It's full of emoting, weeping, brooding, laughing, speech-giving, and throwing things. It's the kind of movie that gets sent to the top-notch actors of the day, the ones who have just won or been nominated for Oscars, like Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment. Without question these three are extraordinary actors. But the rest of the movie, written by Leslie Dixon (The Thomas Crown Affair) and directed by Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker and Deep Impact) walks a fine line between being graceful and clumsy.

Spacey stars as Mr. Simonet, a new 7th grade teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has burn scars on his face and neck and wears white running shoes with his clean-fitting suits. He assigns his class to think of a plan to make the world a better place and put it into action. Osment plays Trevor, a student who takes that assignment to heart and creates "pay it forward," in which one person does something to help three other people, and each person in turn helps three more people. Hunt plays Osment's mother Arlene, a waitress in sleazy Vegas clubs, and a recovering alcoholic.

Trevor chooses his three people that he's going to help. First is a homeless man (played by James Caviezel from The Thin Red Line), then his small, asthmatic classmate who keeps getting beat up, and then Mr. Simonet himself. By getting Mr. Simonet together with his mother, Trevor stands a chance against his no-good drunken father (Jon Bon Jovi) ever coming back. Arlene pays it forward by forgiving her drunken mother (Angie Dickinson) and inviting her back into her life. Meanwhile Jay Mohr plays a reporter who is covering the "pay it forward" story after it has spread all the way to Los Angeles.

I liked director Leder's depiction of Las Vegas and the denizens who live there. I can't remember another movie that focused on the residential area of that glossy city, where the grime and crud is inevitably washed. The sets and locations have a hopeless, lost feel that lends a certain credence to the story.

Leder is also smart enough to let many of her shots linger on the actors' performances. Early in the film, we see Arlene coming home from work, and the camera follows her all over the house as she checks on Trevor, drops her keys, ruffles through some things, and finally gives up and goes to the garage for her secret stash of booze. We learn with no cuts or dialogue exactly who she is.

But other scenes are drowned out with the usual sappy music. I liked composer Thomas Newman's perky little theme music for the film, but he regresses to the usual weeping violins for the dramatic moments. When you have actors this good, their faces should provide all the music we need. It's insulting that they think we need help.

Screenwriter Dixon fares about the same. Some scenes are extremely powerful and restrained, and others go over the top. Much of Spacey's classroom dialogue, especially his opening speech, is great stuff. Likewise, Osment (for the most part) actually sounds like a kid when he talks. But when Jon Bon Jovi as the estranged husband appears and only has two scenes to swing from Humble to Surly, his dialogue comes across as pretty contrived.

Overall, it's the skill of the three main actors who keep Pay It Forward on track and allow me to recommend it. It really could have been derailed right from the start, but it retains a good deal of emotional truth throughout. Like a toddler learning to walk, it keeps falling down and then getting back up again. It's an admirable effort.

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