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IN SHORT: More than the fistful of warm fuzzies you may expect. Top rate across the board performances in a story takes a left turn at its end. [Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence. 124 minutes]
The first thing we thought when we heard Thomas Newman's score for Pay It Forward, which has the same feel to its sounds as his score for American Beauty, was "Oh, what are they going to do to Kevin Spacey now?" Thankfully, everything messy that happens to his character occurs before the film's timeframe. We'll get to that in a bit.
First, two very important things, starting with our basic reaction that we liked Pay It Forward. Intelligent in script and execution, well performed and very touching. It rekindles that inner child thing in all of us and, just like life, stomps the sucker to pieces in a Third Act twist that is way out of line with the rest of the move. That twist was probably in the original novel, but we don't compare to Source Material and we're not about to start here.
Pay It Forward is PG-13 rated which, by our experience, means that parents will park their "mature for their age" ten year olds in a seat and head to the theater next door that's playing something R rated. This is probably not wise, unless you've already seen the picture and know you're in for some parental discussion with the kids after the end credits roll. While the impression given by the TV commercial implies that Pay It Forward is a fairy tale-type intriguing and invigorating kind of movie, it is an adult weight film. If you're going to park your kids, take a seat in the back row so they shouldn't be embarrassed by your presence. <g>
Arlene McKinney (Helen Hunt) spends her days working in a Las Vegas casino. While son Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) feasts on Cap'n Crunch and Pepsi for dinner, Arlene's working a second gig at what would be a lapdance bar, if Pay It Forward were an R rated flick. A recovering drunk, once married and abused by another drunk (Jon Bon Jovi), Hunt's character has never met another drunken man she hasn't liked; all the makings of an unsympathetic role. Trevor looks out for himself, and his mom, as best he can, almost taking a parental role when he finds evidence of mom sneaking a drink.
Trevor's starting seventh grade in a new school in Las Vegas; the desert-scrub residential areas, not the high-octane neon blast of the Strip. His social Studies teacher, Mr. [Eugene] Simonet (Spacey) begins the year by giving his class the same extra credit assignment he has given for the last twelve years: think of a way to change our world and put it into action. Simonet, himself, expects more effort than results from his students. His life is as empty as Arlene's. Simonet's face, at least, is scarred by fire. He lives an ordered life with his best friend -- a dictionary -- and irons his shirts in the night when there's nobody there . . .
Trevor, with an optimism fit for someone who hasn't come up against the cruel realities of life -- Simonet's assignment has him thinking in terms far larger than the mom/dad microcosm that should have wrecked him good -- decides to commit random acts of kindness. His plan is to do something for someone that they can't do for themselves and then make them "pay it forward" three times. This set ups a mathematical chain reaction that would change the world, if everyone does as they're told. Trevor's first "helpee" is a homeless man (Jim Caviezel), his second a classmate being picked on by bullies. He's also got plans for his mom and his teacher, which give the story humor and a lot of emotional weight.
Paralleling Trevor's actions, a couple of hundred miles away in Los Angeles, freelance reporter Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr) also finds himself on the receiving end of a "pay it forward" bit of generosity, involving a car. His nose for news pursues the story, which runs in circles around Trevor's and involves a homeless woman named Grace (Angie Dickinson). Everything comes together in ways we didn't see coming.
Leslie Dixon's screenplay (adapting the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde) doesn't sugar coat any of it. Arlene's life makes her look like hell. She is, emotionally, holding on for dear life and Hunt's performance makes her sympathetic. Simonet's life is an emotional hell, locked down tight until Spacey allows the character to crack wide open. Osment, who doesn't get as teary eyed as the commercial would lead you to think, confirms that his talent is real. Director Mimi Leder, as she has in her other films, sticks to telling the story, works her actors, and leads the viewer down the path to . . . well, saying love is all you need would another misquote of a Beatles song. And it would be a lie.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Pay It Forward, he would have paid...
Dateflick with a miserable ending. Yeah, lots of possible nominations here. Again, parents should not park the little kidlets unless you've seen Pay It Forward first.
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