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Weep-Stakes Winner

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2000

   


    'Pay It Forward' Haley Joel Osment (with Kevin Spacey) sees good deeds instead of dead people in "Pay It Forward." (David James/Warner Bros.)
"Pay It Forward," a sticky feel-good movie based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, already has folks fuming because the hero is a white burn victim instead of a black Vietnam veteran, as in the book. However, that's hardly the most damning flaw of this baldly manipulative, emotionally counterfeit melodrama.

Director Mimi Leder ("Deep Impact") and screenwriter Leslie Dixon ("Mrs. Doubtfire") draw inspiration from Frank Capra's populist parables, but their movie lacks the intelligence and integrity of Capra. The filmmakers extol humanity's virtues, while the darker side eludes them. The sum of their thinking: Bad things happen to good people.

Originally set in California, the story now takes place in Las Vegas, where life really is a crapshoot and losers outnumber winners 10 to 1. Metaphorically, it's not a bad move – the kid protagonist, Trevor (Haley Joel Osment), gambles on human nature – and a little glitter never hurts, especially when the movie is as stylistically bland as this one.

Kevin Spacey portrays Eugene Simonet, an able educator whose charming classroom manner is at odds with the scars on his face. Every year for the past 12 years, Eugene has given his seventh-grade social studies class the same assignment: Think of a way to improve the world and put it into action.

Trevor, the first student to take the assignment seriously, comes up with the "pay it forward" pyramid scheme: He does good deeds for three people, who will then each do good deeds for three more people, and so on. Trevor focuses his efforts on reforming a homeless drug addict (haunting James Caviezel) and fixing up his teacher with his single mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt).

Trevor doesn't have much quality time with Arlene, who works two jobs and regularly drinks herself to sleep. The 11-year-old hopes to make a love match before his no-account father (Jon Bon Jovi) comes back home and starts slamming his ex-wife around. Physical abuse replaces the book's racial issues as the unifying theme here.

The film opens in the middle of the story, when Trevor's plan has already grown beyond the boundaries of Nevada. A crime is in progress in Southern California, and when the bad guy makes his getaway, he totals the car of reporter Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr). As Chris glumly stares at the crumpled heap, a passing stranger improbably insists that Chris accept his Jaguar. (Some studio executive probably came up with this. Maybe it happens all the time in Beverly Hills.) Naturally, the reporter's suspicions are raised by this pricey gesture, and his subsequent investigations take the form of a series of flashbacks. It's a needlessly intrusive way of telling, then inflating, this intimate scenario. The contrivance does provide some of the picture's livelier moments, involving a dissembling crook who claims to have come up with Trevor's concept.

Osment, as riveting here as he was in "The Sixth Sense," and his admirable co-stars manage to disguise many of the film's shortcomings. But even their skilled performances can't remedy the story's needlessly downbeat ending. Supporting players like Bon Jovi's abusive husband and Angie Dickinson's bag lady might as well have stayed at home. Mohr, on the other hand, provides welcome comic respite as the reporter in pursuit of "the Mother Teresa conga line." Cynicism comes naturally to the character, yet even he gets misty. Random acts of kindness will do that to you. So will cheap tearjerkers – that is, until the lights go up.

"Pay It Forward" (122 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for strong language, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual situations and brief violence.

 

Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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