You are a person who doesn’t order coffee with milk anymore; it’s latte you want, and make it grande. You don’t eat spaghetti and meat sauce when you can dine on pasta bolognese. And you’re not just busy — you’re multitasking. Congratulations. You may just be enough of a trendpatsy to embrace the uplift shoved in your face by Pay It Forward.
This unceasingly manipulative entertainment, in which Haley Joel Osment plays a bird-boned secular saint, may honestly be intended as a spiritual experience for people who are bored by the same-old, same-old religious and ethical concepts of decency, generosity, and good deeds. What it is, though, is reprehensible — not only for trotting out the most shameless cliches of emotional and physical damage since the old daytime-TV misery contest Queen for a Day, but for then blackmailing audiences into joining the let’s-be-nice ”movement,” as if in penance for the sin of critics’ heartless skepticism.
(I’ll calm down now, but not before I say this: Pay It Forward gladhands so brazenly — for awards, for publicity, for love — that although the press materials request critical collusion in not revealing the ending, I am going to reveal the ending. Later. In my own contribution toward paying it forward, however, I’ll give fair warning before the spoiler.)
So. For those who think ”a thousand points of light” is so one George Bush generation ago, or who don’t know from mitzvahs and Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Charity, Trevor McKinney (Osment) has a cool new plan: Do something for somebody who needs something but can’t do it himself. Then help two others. Then each of those three should help three more. And so on. And so on. Pretty soon everyone will be swaying to ”We Are the World.”
This is a breakthrough idea only if the do-gooder is 11 years old, with an absent, alcoholic, abusive father (Jon Bon Jovi) and a mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt), who works as a dolled-up waitress at a Las Vegas topless joint, then hits the bottle, dingy drunk, during off-hours. Young Trevor, with Osment’s vulnerable shoulder blades and squooshable face of sad patience, could use a moral road map to rescue him from feelings of powerlessness, and when his new seventh-grade social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), exhorts the class to think of an idea to change the world, then put it into effect, Trevor is enflamed by the possibilities. (Flames, sorry, bad word: Eugene bears the angry, over-smooth scars of fire damage — the cause, you can be sure, is deeply tragic. And with his face streaked and plasticized so that it looks spin-dried, Spacey putties over most of his own more interesting, actorly sharp edges.)
Pay It Forward uses the chain-letter approach to forward the plot as well as to spread the good karma. Trevor’s virtuous kindness affects Arlene, who affects Eugene; others sucker-punched by an angel include Las Vegas’ most polite drug addict (James Caviezel), an aggressive journalist gentled by a stranger’s gift of a new Jaguar (Jay Mohr), and an old bag lady more hippie than hapless (Angie Dickinson!). Meanwhile, working from a clean script by Leslie Dixon (1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair) that does what it can with the muck of the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde on which it’s based, director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) pushes and pushes and pushes the emotional throttle without respite. The movie is hustled not only forward but also into overdrive, especially during Helen Hunt’s high-pitched Lost Weekend scenes and codas of remorse. Badly bleached ”waitress hair” and Julia Roberts’ cast-off cleavage-popping Erin Brockovich wardrobe bring out the actress’ shriller instincts, and when a forlorn Trevor yells at a pickled Arlene, ”I hate the way you are, I hate that you’re my mother!” Hunt goes near apoplectic with Motivation, first slapping the kid, then covering her mouth in movie-style horror.
WARNING: BIG SPOILER COMING ONE LITTLE PARAGRAPH FROM NOW.
And then, at the end, something heinous happens to defeat even the softest of touches, the happiest of sobbers. STOP RIGHT NOW, FOR GOD’S SAKE STOP IF YOU VALUE SURPRISE OVER ANALYSIS. STOP IF YOU ARE HAPPIER BELIEVING CRITICS ARE CYNICS THAN THAT SOME MOVIES CYNICALLY TRY TO SELL MELODRAMATIC PAP.
Trevor dies. He’s doing his third good deed, and he’s knifed. By another kid. Do you see? Do you see how dangerous it is to be decent in this lousy world? And yet look how inspiring it is for a child to die, because his martyrdom makes the Jaguar-driving journalist’s story — the one about the Las Vegas boy who walks in the path of righteousness — even newsier. Pretty soon strangers are leaving mounds of flowers, à la Princess Diana, at Arlene’s modest waitress-wage home! They’re lighting candles! They’re feeling cleansed in the blood of the lamb! Haley Joel Osment died for our sins!
Well, that and for Oscar consideration. D