Pay it Forward (2000)

Not wanting to drop $30 on the latest box-office tripe, my wife and I decided to watch some older films borrowed from the library this week. One of these was Pay it Forward (2000, PG-13), starring Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey, and Haley Joel Osment in the lead role. There was also a cameo appearance by Jim Caviezel before he was famous.

The film was based on a best-selling book by Catherine Ryan Hyde (1999) of the same name. Oh man, when this book came out people got downright sappy about it. I remember my local library had a big display about the book and even a workshop on how to "pay it forward." People went stupidly gaga over it, and for about a month it was the next big thing, just like the Celestine Prophecy before it an Deepak Chopra after it. 

Unlike those, however, the premise of Pay it Forward is purely naturalistic - human beings can rebuild society one person at a time by doing unmerited good deeds. The concept of random acts of kindness is mixed with multi-level marketing to get the "Pay it Forward Movement", which will, eventually, lead to a massive amount of good deeds being done. In the film, Osment plays Trevor McKinney, an annoying too-nice-for-his-own-good sixth grader who comes up with the concept after being inspired by social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey). Trevor's plan is to do unmerited good deeds for three people who need help; each of these persons must afterward promise to do a similar good deed for three others. Eventually, the phenomenons starts to spread exponentially and Trevor becomes a kind of local hero. However, despite his altruism, he finds himself unable to solve his domestic difficulties with his alcoholic slut mother played by Helen Hunt and his abusive absentee father played by Jon Bon Jovi for some reason.

The basic plot of the story revolves around Trevor's attempts to get his mother into a relationship with his teacher, Mr. Simonet - as well as get mom to stop boozing. It is quite pedestrian, and the plot fails spectacularly in its relativistic concept of what it means to "do good." For example, Trevor sees that his teacher needs a woman and that his mom needs a man - even though she is already married. Thus, he tries to fix his teacher and his mom up and is elated when he catches them sleeping together. "You had a sleep over!" he excitedly proclaims after catching them fornicating. The movie has several morally objectionable parts like this and while we are left with a vague feeling that we should do good, what exactly the good entails appears to be completely relative. For example, helping a homeless man and protecting a kid from bullies are held up as examples of good deeds, but so are helping a robber escape from the police and getting your still-married mom to fornicate with your teacher. "Good" is whatever is pleasant or useful at the moment, apparently.

The plot is sloppy; I have never read the book, but I get the impression they had to leave a lot out and ended up with a bunch of loose ends. In a pivotal moment of disclosure, Mr. Simonet, kind of an obsessive-compulsive weirdo, cryptically talks about a certain ritual he has to go through each day to stay sane, but what this is is never revealed. It's like the director cut the scene where this was revealed and forgot to resolve it. Oops. Osment's martyr-death and the end is totally forced and weird. Sorry for the spoiler, but if you spent your evening on this film, it is already spoiled.

Not to mention that Haley Joel Osment can just be a real annoying actor. His heyday seems to have passed now that he's college-age, but from 1995-2001 it was like he was in everything. He was cute as Forrest Gump's son and was decent in Second Hand Lions, but in any movie where he gets preachy - like Pay it Forward - he gets real annoying real fast. 

This movie sucked. The plot was dripping with secularity. I yawned at the death scene and found myself reverting to playing Candy Crush on my phone during several slow parts of the movie.

One and a half tiaras.