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A Few Dollars Short

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2000


    'Pay It Forward' Haley Joel Osment, right, (with Kevin Spacey) sees good deeds instead of dead people in "Pay It Forward." (David James/Warner Bros.)
So I'm watching the Seattle Mariners play the New York Yankees on Sunday night. And Seattle's ahead in the late stages. Which means it's time for Seattle to bring on relief pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki as a "closer" to keep the Yankees from a flurry of come-from-behind hits in the final innings. Well, he does the job. Seattle wins.

Which gets me thinking: Maybe that's Hollywood's problem. They don't have closers, the creative equivalent of a Sasaki or New York's Mariano Rivera to make sure a movie doesn't lose its lead. Too bad Warner Bros. didn't get a closer for "Pay It Forward," the new Kevin Spacey-Helen Hunt movie. A closer could have told screenwriter Leslie Dixon to stay the course, maintain the movie's uplifting tone – not opt for the film's climactic, depressing developments.

"I don't care if the book ends that way," the closer could have snarled. "It doesn't work here. Now get out there and give the audience what they want."

Let's simply state for the record that you have been warned. And let's move on to the bigger picture.

It's too bad about the ending because, until then, "Pay It Forward," based on Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel, is Hollywood feel-goodism at its best (or worst, depending on your "Patch Adams" tolerance quotient). Its message may be less subtle than a 25-mile stretch of South of the Border billboards, but that's par for this kind of course.

As directed by Mimi Leder, this movie wears a 60-ton heart on its sleeve and you'd better spread your feet and square your shoulders to catch its sentiments. Although "Pay It Forward" makes clear that this world is full of horrible problems, from child abuse to heroin addiction, it brims with unabashed, irony-free hope. And Spacey (who assumes what was a darker role in the novel), Hunt and Haley Joel "I See Dead People" Osment bring this positive feeling home with strong, credible performances.

Seventh-grader Trevor McKinney (Osment) takes it seriously when social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Spacey) issues this homework assignment: "Think of an idea to change our world and put it into ACTION." Walking past a homeless person (James Caviezel), Trevor invites the man to sleep in his garage.

His mother, Arlene (Hunt), an alcoholic barmaid who has little time for her son, is none too pleased with this arrangement. She blames Mr. Simonet. So, with her trashy perm in full warrior array, Arlene storms into Simonet's classroom, only to meet an intellectual teacher who runs rings around her limited vocabulary and whose disfigured face bespeaks some horrible tragedy from the past.

He gets Arlene so flustered, she races to the dictionary to look up them fancy words he uses.

Trevor's plan is disarmingly straighforward: Do a huge favor for three different people, then urge each recipient to do the same for three other people.

For his part, Trevor keeps helping the homeless man and adds another to his three-person list: Mr. Simonet. It becomes clear, fairly quickly, that Trevor would love to replace his estranged, also-alcoholic father (Jon Bon Jovi) with the gentle teacher. The trouble is, Mom – whose idea of a wholesome meal is vodka – has to go along with the program and invite Mr. Simonet for dinner.

In a less-than-effective subplot, the movie jumps ahead four months to introduce a reporter named Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr), who gets wind of Trevor's already active "pay it forward" movement. He learns about it when a lawyer – quite out of the blue – suddenly gives the journalist his own Jaguar. Chris's investigations lead him to a reformed criminal (David Ramsey) and a homeless woman (Angie Dickinson), who are already part of the nice-guy network. Chris gets closer and closer to the source of all this – Trevor.

Spacey reveals new, surprising qualities as Simonet, an enigmatic individual whose prosaic, erudite teaching style is a protective outer layer for past trauma. And although Hunt essentially plays a variation of the Real Gal role she did in "As Good as It Gets" and "Dr. T and the Women," she's immensely likable. Osment, a charmer of a child, makes the perfect center of the movie. Looking at his face, you can really believe he'd have the confidence and kid power to change the world. It's only too bad that power doesn't extend to final script approval.

"Pay It Forward" (PG-13, 122 minutes) – Contains strong language, drug use and emotionally intense anecdotes.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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