At the Movies: `Pay It Forward'

Tuesday, October 17th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

It would take a hard heart not to feel moved by the weepy ending of ``Pay It Forward.'' And it would take a hard head not to leave the film thinking you've been shamelessly manipulated for a couple of hours.

``Pay It Forward'' has admirable performances by past Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt and nominee Haley Joel Osment. All three could be in the running again come nomination time next February.

The movie itself, though, is a fitful, rather frustrating affair. Many moviegoers will drench their hankies at the syrupy ending. Many more will choke back gags over its mawkishness. It all depends on your tolerance for sentimental hogwash.

Spacey stars as Eugene Simonet, a social-studies teacher who bears the burn scars of a childhood incident he'd rather not talk about (he eventually does, in detail). Each fall, Eugene gives his new students the same do-gooder assignment: Dream up some way to improve the world.

Spunky Trevor McKinney (Osment), the son of a single mom who's a closet boozer (Hunt), comes up with the notion of paying good deeds forward.

Trevor's idea is to perform a major act of decency to help someone, who then must do the same for three other people. And so on. And so on. By exponential progression, a wave of ``pay it forward'' goodness is supposed to sweep the planet.

The idea has all the vapidity of those ``random acts of kindness'' bumper stickers. Still, Eugene is entranced with Trevor's thoughtfulness and later becomes the object of one of the boy's kind acts when Trevor tries to fix the teacher up with his mother, Arlene.

Trevor becomes disillusioned, believing his own good deeds ended in blind alleys.

As the action unfolds, though, a down-on-his-luck reporter (Jay Mohr) begins backtracking a series of strange altruistic actions, what he cynically refers to as a ``Mother Teresa conga line.'' Unbeknownst to Trevor, ``pay it forward'' has caught on.

Sound enough if you're making a feel-good flick.

Director Mimi Leder (``Deep Impact'') crafts a lot of scenes with fine, emotive acting. Strung together, though, the scenes add up to a bucket brigade of contrivance, setups so the movie can tug clumsily at the heartstrings.

There's a spate of drug and alcohol problems for Trevor and his ``pay it forward'' enlistees to take on. A suicidal woman on a bridge whom one of them encounters. Eugene's bean-spilling about his burns, revealing a kinship between him and Trevor after the conveniently timed return of Arlene's abusive husband (Jon Bon Jovi, in a fleeting, empty role). The staged feel of Trevor's run-ins with school bullies, setting up the tearful conclusion.

Even the ``pay it forward'' idea itself feels artificial. Other than Trevor's bicycle ride past a group of homeless people, there's no explication of how he hit on the idea. It simply springs full-blown into the film so Leder and company can pull moviegoers along like Slinky Dogs, bound for the land of good-deed doers.

Still, ``Pay It Forward'' is worthwhile for the performances. Spacey softens his smart-alecky persona and delivers a touching portrait of a lonely man accustomed to his outer scars but unable to deal with his inner ones.

Hunt essentially does a tougher, less likable but satisfying variation on her single mother from ``As Good As It Gets.''

And Osment, conveying sad wisdom beyond his years, proves that last year's turn in ``The Sixth Sense'' was no fluke.

It's too bad Leder could not keep a closer eye on the maudlin meter and tone ``Pay It Forward'' down into a more authentic exploration of goodwill and selflessness.

``Pay It Forward,'' a Warner Bros. release, runs 122 minutes. It is rated PG-13 for scenes of substance abuse and recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence.