Friday October 20, 2000

     Is it live or is it Memorex? Is it a diamond or is it authentic cubic zirconium? Is the feeling in "Pay It Forward" genuine or is it a carefully created emotional forgery, the kind of fake tinsel that's been a Hollywood specialty forever? In each case, it's awfully hard to tell the difference.
     For it's the not inconsiderable accomplishment of "Pay It Forward" to win us over, much against our better judgment, to its sentimental, inspirational brand of fantasy. Difficult as it is for a multimillion-dollar Hollywood movie that bangs the drum for selflessness and idealism to be taken at all seriously, the combination of restrained writing and direction and top-of-the-line acting is enough to make even confirmed agnostics want to believe in this unashamed fairy tale.
     Starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt as damaged people in need of connections and the remarkable Haley Joel Osment as the small child who leads them, "Pay It Forward" is adapted from a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde that is so brazenly sentimental it has real glitter on its cover and actually boasts of being "in the tradition of the successful and inspirational television show 'Touched by an Angel.' "
     It was the task of screenwriter Leslie Dixon, as it was with Richard LaGravenese on "The Bridges of Madison County," to put a leash on the novel's extremes of sentimentality, and she's done an excellent job. Typically adept is the change of the book's setting from a generic California town to the intriguing locale of working-class Las Vegas.
     Mimi Leder builds on what Dixon has done and takes it further. A director who added human texture to generic blockbusters "Deep Impact" and "The Peacemaker," she works especially hard and with surprising success using tact and restraint to overcome the story's patness and sentimentality. "Pay It Forward" is as notable for where it doesn't go as where it does, for avoiding the missteps of bathos and piling on that almost invariably mar these kinds of three-hankie studio productions.
     Without the quality of acting "Pay It Forward" attracted, this would not have been possible. Cast by Geraldine Leder, the film is strong through its main supporting roles, which include Jay Mohr as a curious journalist, James Caviezel as a homeless man with a drug problem, Jon Bon Jovi as an absent husband and Angie Dickinson as a decidedly unglamorous street person. But the film gets the most out of its three stars, who bring more carefully calibrated emotion to their parts than could rightfully be expected.
     Spacey, always especially good at characters who are half-hidden inside themselves, is Eugene Simonet, a middle school social studies teacher (the character was African American in the novel) whose terrible burns disfigure his body and motivate his guarded outlook on the world. The sight of Eugene painstakingly ironing his own shirts is the film's opening shot, and it encapsulates the controlled, repetitive way he has chosen to live his life.
     *
     Arlene McKinney, naturally, has exactly the opposite temperament. A harried, disorganized single mother who works two jobs to earn a living, she is also an alcoholic troubled by self-doubt who needs more than the stars on her fingernail polish to brighten her life. Hunt, one of the most empathetic of actresses, smoothly draws us into the life of this convincingly haggard and uncertain woman.
     Eleven-year-old Trevor McKinney, Arlene's son and Mr. Simonet's student, is the link between these two people. The de facto adult in his family, Trevor has a steeliness and a fierce determination that Osment is completely comfortable with. The substance and strength he brings to the part, his ability to match intensity with both Spacey and Hunt, show, in case anyone had any doubts, that Osment's performance in "The Sixth Sense" was hardly a fluke. Young as he is, this is quite an actor.
     Responding to Mr. Simonet's assignment to think of a way to change the world and put it into action, an intrigued Trevor comes up with the "pay it forward" notion, the idea that you do really big favors for people, and instead of paying it back, the recipients pay it forward to others similarly in need of help.
     (Classic movie buffs will recognize that idea as a variant of a concept that was old when Douglas Sirk utilized it in his 1954 remake of the 1935 "Magnificent Obsession," which in turn came from a 1933 Lloyd C. Douglas novel. The idea there, put into practice by a character whose death gets the plot into gear, is that the correct response to someone doing good for you is to "pass it along" to someone else.)
     While we watch the ways Trevor tries to put his idea into practice--guess what, it's harder than he thinks--we also follow a reporter tracing how the notion the young boy has started has made its way into the world.
     The point about "Pay It Forward" is not that the film isn't as contrived as it sounds--it is--but that the way it's been made enables us to forget that if we're so inclined. The ultimate recycler, Hollywood doesn't have much success inventing new kinds of stories; its strength is coming up with ways to reuse the old ones.


Pay It Forward, 2000. PG-13, for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence. In association with Bel-Air Entertainment, a Tapestry Films production, released by Warner Bros. Director Mimi Leder. Producers Peter Abrams, Robert Levy, Steven Reuther. Executive producers Mary McLaglen, Jonathan Treisman. Screenplay Leslie Dixon, based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. Editor David Rosenbloom. Costumes Renee Ehrlich Kalfus. Music Thomas Newman. Production design Leslie Dilley. Art director Larry Hubbs. Set decorator Peg Cummings. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes. Kevin Spacey as Eugene Simonet. Helen Hunt as Arlene McKinney. Haley Joel Osment as Trevor McKinney. Jay Mohr as Chris Chandler. James Caviezel as Jerry. Jon Bon Jovi as Ricky. Angie Dickinson as Grace.