[Screen It]

(2000) (Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt) (PG-13)

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Drama: An 11-year-old hopes that his progressive, pyramid-like scheme of getting people to help others will make his and his mother's lives better.
Trevor McKinney (HALEY JOEL OSMENT) is a smart and thoughtful, 11-year-old kid who lives in a blue-collar neighborhood of Las Vegas. His mother, Arlene (HELEN HUNT), is an alcoholic and often works double shifts to make ends meet, while his recovering alcoholic father, Ricki (JON BON JOVI), hasn't been seen for months.

As such, Trevor's future doesn't seem bright, but that changes on his first day of school when he meets his new social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (KEVIN SPACEY). An intellectual who likes to challenge his students, Eugene sports physical scars that mask deeper, more emotional wounds, yet he hopes that one student might bite on his class assignment idea that one person can have an impact upon and maybe even change the world.

That student is Trevor, and he comes up with the progressive, pyramid-like scheme of "Pay It Forward." In it, one person will help three others with something they couldn't achieve on their own, and those people will then each do the same to three others who will then continue the growing trend.

With Arlene either at work or passed out drunk, Trevor decides to begin his scheme by helping Jerry (JAMES DAVIEZEL), a homeless heroin addict. Recognizing his success, Trevor then decides that the two other people he'll help will be his mom and Mr. Simonet. As this occurs, we flash back and forth between a subplot involving Chris Chandler (JAY MOHR), a reporter from Los Angeles who benefits from a stranger's generosity and is intrigued by the man's statement that he was just "paying it forward."

Smelling an incredible human-interest story, Chris begins tracking and tracing such acts backwards, eventually encountering characters as diverse as Sidney (DAVID RAMSEY), a streetwise petty thief and Grace (ANGIE DICKINSON), an older alcoholic who lives out of her car. As Chris draws ever closer to the source of Pay It Forward, Trevor hopes that his multi-tiered quest will make both his and his mother's lives better.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
When it comes to acknowledging the achievements and contributions of ancient societies, one automatically thinks of the Greeks or the Romans. Yet, long before them, the ancient Egyptians were doing their part in helping mold the way in which our world is and operates today. Not only did they invent the first symbols for numbers as well as the first clock, but they also did the same for the first 365-day calendar, saw, artificial teeth, glass beads and even the weaving loom.

One can now add Warner Bros. release of "Pay It Forward" to that list. For those now sporting a bemused or incredulous look, no the film isn't based on some old Egyptian folklore nor was the screenplay lifted from some recently unearthed hieroglyphics or papyrus scrolls. Instead, it's based on Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel of the same name about a young man's innovative proposal to make the world a better place.

How, then, you might ask, do the ancient Egyptians fit into all of this? Well, they built the great pyramids, those ancient testimonials to their leaders and engineering prowess that later so impressed con men into developing pyramid schemes and chain letters. You know, the geometrically progressive idea where you get a set number of people to send money or letters to another set number of people who continue that sequence until hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people are involved and the person at the top of the "pyramid" gets rich from the structure beneath them.

In this adaptation of Hyde's novel by director Mimi Leder ("Deep Impact," "The Peacemaker") and screenwriter Leslie Dixon ("The Thomas Crown Affair," "Mrs. Doubtfire"), the triangularly forward thinking 11-year-old hasn't proposed his modified pyramid scheme to become rich - at least not in the financial sense of the word - and that's the wonderfully optimistic premise that fuels the film.

It certainly had me going for the first ten minutes or so, eliciting that same sort of instantaneous feeling of watching greatness that "Good Will Hunting" also exuded. Then the main storyline of alcoholism, domestic abuse and dark and unhappy childhoods suddenly and surprisingly kicked in, not necessarily derailing the proceedings, but certainly taking some wind from the film's lofty sails.

Of course, most good to great films have varying levels of underlying complexity to them and I suppose it's not completely fair to blame a film for developing in a certain way or heading in a direction I wasn't expecting or particularly desirous of.

Nevertheless, those looking for nothing but an uplifting film about people doing good deeds for their fellow man (a point driven by the film's trailer and TV commercials) should be forewarned that some unsettling and/or disturbing material is also present.

The film consists of two distinct, but obviously interrelated stories. One concerns a tenacious reporter who wants to track down the origin of the Pay It Forward scheme after he's become the recipient of a stranger's sudden generosity. The other regards a boy who comes up with that idea in hopes that it will impress his teacher and ultimately help better his and his mother's lives.

While the latter story correctly gets the most screen time and greatly benefits from solid performances and some good writing, the former isn't really that necessary and ultimately doesn't do a great deal for the film. Since we know from the onset that the idea originated with Trevor, there's little point in the reporter - played decently by Jay Mohr ("Go," "Jerry Maguire") -- trying to solve this "mystery" by climbing the resultant pyramid and tracing the acts of kindness backwards.

Giving the audience superior position - where one knows what a character doesn't - is usually used to add suspense, horror or any number of other knowledgeable reactions. Yet, it does very little of that here, only allowing for some rather lame and unnecessary flashbacks that seem more like filler than anything offering any true substance to the proceedings.

Far more successful and engaging is the main story, although at times the plot mechanics regarding the domestic discord often send the film teetering along the fine line of melodrama. What ultimately saves it are the performances from its Oscar winning & nominated trio of thespians who embody the story's emotionally injured characters.

Kevin Spacey ("American Beauty," "The Big Kahuna") plays one of those caring, thought-provoking teachers we all wish we had throughout school, and he gets some of the film's best dialogue, especially during the first half. His scarred face, however, obviously represents inner scars that we know will inevitably be dredged up and discussed in some late in the game, revelatory scene designed to be heartbreaking and make us squirm. While it manages to do both, it occasionally feels just a bit too manipulative in a "insert cause of submerged emotional distress here" type of fashion. It doesn't ruin Spacey's fine performance, but it does take some of the edge off it, despite the intentions.

Helen Hunt ("Dr. T & The Women," "As Good As It Gets") plays the character with the most external problem (alcoholism) that masks her inner one (previous domestic abuse) and she does a credible job doing so. While her characterizations could tend to be of the made for TV movie variety, Hunt manages - for the most part -- to keep her character's head above such schmaltzy waters.

Undeniably one of the best, if not the best, child actors working today, Haley Joel Osment ("Bogus," "Forrest Gump") proves here that his performance in "The Sixth Sense" was no fluke. Although his character is occasionally subjected to those same melodramatic moments befalling his costars, Osment sidesteps falling into their trappings. Supporting performances from the likes of Angie Dickinson ("Duets," "Dressed To Kill"), Jon Bon Jovi ("U-571," "No Looking Back") and James Caviezel ("The Thin Red Line," "Ride With The Devil") are all solid, with the latter getting some fun moments playing off Osment's character.

While most of the characters manage to rise above the story's varying melodramatic developments, the film as a whole isn't always as successful. Leder, who's manning her first small-scale picture after dealing with missing nuclear warheads and approaching space rocks, doesn't always seem so sure of herself in this more intimate venue.

Once the personal revelations start oozing out and piling up, the film begins taking on the feeling of a manipulative, tearjerker wannabe. Fortunately, it never succumbs to the level or gets as thick as that of a normal soap opera or a maudlin TV movie of the week. Having all of that filtered through its lead performers and their strong performances certainly diminishes -- but clearly doesn't entirely alleviate -- such nagging problems, thus making the film relatively easy enough to sit through.

Nonetheless, none of that prepares the viewer for the sudden twist near the end of the film that comes out of the blue, feels completely contrived and nearly ruins everything that preceded it. While it's obviously designed to be an emotionally charged catalyst - and may have worked, to some degree, better in the original novel - it's absolutely unnecessary for the story and is likely to anger viewers after they've invested their time and attention to the story.

That, the melodramatic underpinnings, and the fact that the film isn't exactly what's being advertised, may just generate some negative buzz from disgruntled viewers. While the latter problem can't be blamed on the movie and there's certainly nothing wrong with a film developing into something you hadn't necessarily imagined or expected, the turn of events here prevents the film from being as good as it could and should have been. As a result and despite the fine performances and terrific beginning, "Pay It Forward" rates as just a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 7, 2000 / Posted October 20, 2000

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