Oh, let me just take a moment here to cool down. This movie ended up really pissing me off, but it’s not actually all bad. It’s bad, but not all bad. Unoriginal, insulting to the intelligence, contrived, confusing and manipulative, but not all bad. The cast’s good. There are some strong moments. Heck, the idea is sorta appealing, even though it’s hardly all that new and striking. But hey, what can you expect from an 11 year old doing an assignment for his Social Studies class? His teacher is Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), a middle age man with burns all over his face and body who still has the courage to spend all day in front of snickering kids. He’s a good teacher, and he inspires his students by asking them to “think of an idea to change our world and put it into action”. Most kids just think up something about recycling bins or whatnot, but little Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) has a more ambitious plan. He’s gonna do three big favours to three people, things they can’t do themselves, and in return, he’ll ask them to “pay it forward” by doing something good for three others. By virtue of exponentiation, Trevor figures it shouldn’t take long before it’s all happy happy joy joy everywhere.
Small cynical aside: Is it just me or would this chain-mail of kindness fail miserably? The big problem I see is that the notion of doing a favour is awfully vague. If I give up my seat on the bus to some old lady, does that count? It’s an act of kindness, but that’s hardly gonna change the world. Then again, if the actions have too be all big and flashy, like in the film when we hear that some dude gave computers to foster children, that can’t work either. Not everybody can afford giving away computers. These kids for instance, they can’t do much for others, they already need to help themselves… I also think that, in the movie at the least, the paying it forward is often dumb and dangerous. Like when Trevor takes a heroin addict off the street, feeds him and lets him sleep in his garage. Alright, good enough, anyway this is Hollywood and the junkie has Jim Caviezel’s big blue eyes and the look of a frightened pooch. But in real life, don’t you think that there’s a chance the bum would kill the kid then go sell the TV, vcr and stereo to the nearest pawnshop for some smack?
The film follows an odd structure, cutting back and forth between what Trevor’s up to and a lot of boring nonsense involving a reporter (Jay Mohr) who’s investigating the pay-it-forward movement. You see, the guy’s car got smashed and before he could start bitching about it, some rich lawyer who happened to be nearby gave him a Jaguar, asking only that he’d pay it forward (I know I’m repeating the title all the time, but so does the movie, ad nauseam). The reporter’s dumbstruck for sure and he decides to go back the chain. That whole part of the movie is pure crap. As I said, the favours are all dumb, show-offy things that are hardly favours in the first place. Giving a hotshot reporter a Jaguar? Why not sell it and pay the rent of a dozen single moms for a year? Or send ten inner city kids to college? Then there’s that ridiculous scene in which a girl is having an asthma attack in an overcrowded ER and no one bothers to help her, so a homeboy who got stabbed takes out a gun and manhandles a nurse into giving the girl an oxygen mask. That’s an act of kindness? That’s fricking insanity to me! Plus, maybe I’m still getting over Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled”, but how come the only non-white character in the film is a stereotypical dumbass, pot smoking lowlife thief? And what was this dope paying forward? Well, an old woman hid him in her car while cops were chasing him after a botched robbery. That ain’t doing somebody a favour, that’s being an accessory to a crime!
The movie is somehow less retarded when it just sticks to the kid and the teacher, even though it’s too melodramatic. You see, Trevor’s mom (Helen Hunt) is never there for him. She works long hours in a casino (the movie is set in Las Vegas) and she’s got a second job as a waitress in one of those weird movie strip clubs where all the women are gorgeous, they don’t seem tired or on coke and they never have to show more than cleavage. Oh, and Ma Arlene’s a drunk. She’s supposedly in recovery, but she’s got hard liquor hidden everywhere, to Trevor’s infinite sadness. But then again, there might be hope. In the spirit of his pay-it-forward idea, Trevor figures he can help both his mommy and his teacher by hustling them into dating. It won’t be easy though, cause Eugene has scars not only on his skin but also on his heart (how much do you bet that Kevin Spacey is gonna get this big actor moment when everything stops and he can finally reveal in a half-choked voice how he got his burns?). Then there’s Trevor’s drunken dad who turns up in the third act for no apparent better reason than to shake up some more drama, an artificial twist that fails miserably. I mean, how can the no good violent dad be threatening when he’s played by effeminate cheese rocker Jon Bon Jovi?
So far, so lame, but all that touchy feely ‘Oprah presents’ dreck doesn’t even prepare you for what has to be one of the worst endings ever. I won’t spoil it, but you can probably guess already that it has something to do with the story arc of Trevor and that of the reporter colliding. Right there, I feel that’s wrong. This is the same old hogwash notion that an act of kindness has to be validated by the media to have any worth. And then… well, you’ll see. It might steal you a few tears, but you’ll mostly feel used and insulted.
You know what the worst thing, though? It’s that as I first stated, the movie is bad but not all bad, so I can’t completely slam it and urge you to avoid it at all costs. In fact, if you wanna see some of the best acting performances of the year, you might wanna check it out anyway. Even though the material’s weak, the three leads do get to shine. They take all the clichés, the clunky dialogue and the tired Freudian motivations (“I’m a drunk because I had a bad childhood”, “I can’t get intimate because I had a bad childhood” and so on) and they somehow achieve to find little moments of truth and touch you anyway. Chances are they’ll even make you cry. The ‘burns’ make-up is grotesque, but Kevin Spacey still remains a guy you root for. Helen Hunt is skanked up with ugly hair, white trash clothes and racoon eyeliner, but she still makes you care about her character. She’s not a very good mother, but she tries. And then there’s Haley Joel Osment who’s got the tough responsibility of leading this big mess, and he’s wonderful. How can such a young guy be such a charismatic, subtle and complex performer? It ain’t enough to make up for a lousy script, but it’s something. I guess I gotta blame Mimi Leder too, she directed this lemon after all. She says in interviews that she’s glad that for once she made a movie without bombs and explosions in it. Well, this is as sappy and dumbed down as her “Deep Impact”, and it doesn’t even have that huge tidal wave. Here’s a thought, maybe instead of that sucky ending, maybe she should have had a huge tidal wave wash down Las Vegas and kill everybody…