Nonrandom Act of Kindness
There were two Saturday nights’ worth of public sneak previews before the press screening of Pay It Forward I attended, which says one thing to me: This is a film the studio knows casual moviegoers will love and critics will not, and it wanted the public paying their praise forward before the critics could be heard. So I won’t be surprised to find my inbox jammed with emails excoriating critics in general and me in particular once this gets posted.
I’ll lay it out for you right here with something you can quote back at me in your complaints: Pay It Forward is a cheaply manipulative film of constructed sentimentality that left me feeling angry at how it tried to jerk my emotions around. Feel free to rant about how heartless and unfeeling I am.
On the first day of seventh grade, Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment: The Sixth Sense, Forrest Gump) receives the following assignment from social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey: The Big Kahuna, American Beauty): “Think of an idea to change our world — and put it into ACTION!” Most kids come up with plans to post flyers about recycling and such, but Trevor’s brilliantly simple idea astounds even his teacher: Do something nice for someone who really needs help — it has to be something hard, something they can’t do for themselves — and in return, that person passes on the gesture to three other people; they pay the kindness forward. Eugene wonders if the plan might be “overly utopian,” relying as it does on “an act of faith in the goodness of people,” and Trevor’s naively childlike and wonderfully optimistic reply is “So?”
So, Pay It Forward starts out promisingly enough, and is even able to maintain some semblance of integrity for quite a while, seemingly content to be a small tale about a put-upon child, Trevor, forced to grow up too soon and trying to reclaim his sense of childhood innocence and hope in the world. His abusive father out of the picture — though Trevor worries for how long — Trevor is the grown-up of his little family, more mature and responsible than his alcoholic mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt: As Good as It Gets, Twister). For a moment, Trevor is able to rise above his dispiriting world of metal detectors in his school and fending for himself at home, and though he loses faith when it seems his good efforts don’t pay off, we can share in his earlier confidence because we’ve seen how his kindness has affected Jerry (James Caviezel: Ride with the Devil, The Thin Red Line), the homeless man who was the first to benefit from Pay It Forward, and through a reporter (Jay Mohr: Go, Paulie), an astonished PIF recipient who starts tracing back through this “chain of do-gooders” to find the source.
But all is ruined by the overblown, inexcusably exploitive ending. As if we could not be trusted to understand that small, kind deeds beget other small, kind deeds, and that this could be enough to change the world, one tiny step at a time, director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) and screenwriter Leslie Dixon (the film is based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde) choose to whack us over the head with a metaphor so tawdry and unnecessary that it ends up subverting the message of the entire film. It turns what are supposed to be quiet, unrewarded acts of generosity into showy, public events, as if good cannot be done in the world unless you hear about it on the evening news. Instead of doing a good deed and leaving nothing more than a silver bullet, Pay It Forward shouts from the rooftops how humble and unassuming it wants us to think it is.
The only thing that makes Pay It Forward worth seeing, in fact, are marvelous performances by the entire cast. Helen Hunt may not have the chemistry with Spacey we’re supposed to believe she has (Trevor tries to set up his mom with his teacher), but she is depressingly believable as a woman just barely holding herself together, and, in full-on Erin Brockovich mode — bottle-blond, with a cheap perm and garish makeup — she dares to let herself look like hell. Jay Mohr does smarmy charm better than anybody since Bill Murray. Jim Caviezel is starting to prove himself a chameleon, disappearing into his timid, shy vagrant.
But the movie belongs to Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment — their scenes together contain the only genuine actorly chemistry in the film, and are characterized by a give-and-take that’s rare when children and adults act against one another. Osment is an astonishing young actor: honest, serious, and intelligent, a child actor on a level with the young Jodie Foster — he’s not just a performer but a craftsman, even at his tender age, and an extraordinary one not likely to fade away as so many child actors do. And, as the friend who saw the film with me noted, you can see that Osment has studied Spacey, tried to figure out just what it is that Spacey does — or, more to the point, doesn’t do — that makes him so compelling onscreen. Osment may have learned that less is more working on The Sixth Sense, that staying still is sometimes the most effective thing to do when a camera is right in your face, but it’s clear here that he has honed his skill even more under Spacey’s probably unconscious tutelage.
And from a film buff’s point of view, the most interesting moments of paying it forward occur here, in dissecting how two actors can be so commanding in a film that ultimately pissed me off. Spacey does not treat Osment onscreen the way that most adults do when working with children — he does not go easy on the kid, doesn’t coddle him, but demands the same feedback from Osment that he demands of the adults that he acts against. And the respect that Spacey affords Osment — in treating him like a colleague and a professional — is probably the greatest and truest kindness Spacey could have given the kid, if Osment wants to devote his life to acting. And I hope he does.