"Pay It Forward", based on the novel of the same name by Catherine Ryan Hyde, is built around a concept akin to 'viral marketing' on the Internet. Help three people, and instead of having them 'pay you back', you ask them to 'pay it forward' by helping three other people, who would then each 'pay it forward' by helping three other people. Pretty soon, 'random acts of kindness' will spread into the global community faster than Hotmail accounts. With such an interesting concept at its core, a story that is almost Capra-esque in its unbridled optimism and execution, and three terrific performances by its Oscar-caliber principals, "Pay It Forward" is a memorable and moving drama that succeeds, even with a major narrative stumble near the end.
'Think of an idea to change our world-and put it into action' is the assignment handed out by teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey of "American Beauty") to his seventh grade social studies class, in an attempt to get them to think about the world outside their Las Vegas homes. However, despite his liberal and globally-minded bravado, Eugene is very much the conservative. His face disfigured by burns, Eugene's life tracks along a very narrow path as he shuts himself out of the world, blinded by his own cynicism.
But all of this changes for Eugene, as well as a number of other people, when one of his students, Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment of "The Sixth Sense"), takes the assignment seriously and comes up with the concept of 'paying it forward'. Trevor's first act of kindness under the 'pay it forward' scheme is a homeless junkie (James Caviezel of "Frequency"), whom he befriends and invites to stay at his home until he can get on his feet again. Not surprisingly, this doesn't go over well with Trevor's mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt of "As Good as it Gets"), who holds two cocktail waitress jobs to make ends meet while battling a drinking problem.
Despite a few serious set-backs, Trevor's idealistic notion soon pays dividends as it begins to spread across the country, creating a chain of unlikely human connections, such as between a well-heeled attorney (Gary Werntz, husband of director Mimi Leder), a street thug, and a bag lady (Angie Dickinson of "Police Woman" fame). The 'pay it forward' concept eventually catches the attention of a Los Angeles reporter (Jay Mohr of "Go"), who sets off to track it back to its source. Unfortunately, within his own small circle, it seems that Trevor's project is a failure, as two of his nearest and dearest targets, Eugene and Arlene, are too wrapped up in their own self-pity and pessimism to climb out of the shadows of their past to 'pay it forward'.
The intriguing concept at the center of "Pay It Forward" came about from author Catherine Ryan Hyde's own experience when her car caught fire at the side of a Los Angeles road. Two men came forward to put out the fire, but before Hyde could thank them, her two saviors disappeared. Later on, Hyde returned the favor by helping another woman stranded at the side of the road, and instead of accepting thanks, she asked the stranger to 'pay it forward' to the next person in need of help. For twenty years, Hyde often wondered what the world would be like if such an altruistic concept actually became popular, and the result was a novel. Since its publication late last year, the concept has gained momentum outside of the pages of Hyde's novel, as a number of grassroots movements have sprouted up around the world, such as the Pay It Forward Foundation, based in Los Angeles. It's not surprising that such an idea could capture the imagination of the public-in a world of downsizing, have-and-have-nots, and unrestrained greed, 'paying it forward' forces one to see the positive potential in others, reinforces the responsibility of the individual in the community at large, and provides a foundation for a more optimistic outlook on the future.
"Pay It Forward" the film inspires the imagination in a similar way, and marks a dramatic change of pace for director Mimi Leder, whose two previous efforts were strictly genre offerings ("The Peacemaker" and "Deep Impact"). With her latest film, Leder tackles a much more character-driven script (penned by Leslie Dixon, who wrote the re-make of "The Thomas Crown Affair"), and more-or-less succeeds in boiling down Hyde's novel into a snappily-paced two-hour film without losing sight of what made the novel so intriguing. And though a number of the plot elements are somewhat clichéd, including a blatantly emotionally-manipulative and unnecessary ending, none of what happens appears to ring false, which is due in part to strong and credible characterizations, which are in turn, backed up by Oscar-worthy performances.
Unlike "Gone in Sixty Seconds", which took three Academy Award-winning actors and squandered them on a mediocre script, "Pay It Forward" is a vehicle that is ideally-suited for each of its three principals. Spacey, who has a knack for playing brilliant yet alienated characters, is right at home as the loquacious social studies teacher whose cold exterior eventually gives way to reveal a complex man with a wounded soul. Hunt plays a similar role to her Oscar-winning performance in "As Good as it Gets", a single mother coping with a raw deal in life. Despite what could have easily been a re-tread, Hunt brings a certain earnest quality to the role that makes Arlene both believable and likable, even when the script fumbles by having her make some key decisions that seem completely out-of-character. Finally, in the role of Trevor, Osment once again illustrates his talent and versatility with another memorable performance. This time, instead of 'seeing dead people', the gifted actor plays a boy that is wise beyond his years, both intellectually and emotionally. As the emotional center of the story, it is difficult to think of any other child actor who could pull off what Osment is able to do--demonstrate considerable range and an uncommon chemistry with his two co-stars.
Despite some minor flaws, "Pay It Forward" is worthy of a whole-hearted recommendation. With the likes of Spacey, Hunt, and Osment headlining the cast, and an intriguing concept that is sure to inspire, "Pay It Forward" is a crowd-pleasing effort that can easily be counted among the year's best.