Pay It Back
by Sasha Stone
It's hard to be a
saint in the city, especially in Las Vegas. Yet one was born when an
eleven-year-old boy named Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) elevates a class
assignment given by his teacher, Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey), to devise
a plan to change the world. Trevor takes the assignment seriously, and
carefully lays out a plan on how people can become decent by paying
an act of kindness forward, instead of back. If he can help three people,
then the plan might have a chance of working, because then they'll help
three friends, and so on. But Trevor is having some problems changing
a world that won't be changed - evil has too tight a grip. Mothers drink
and let abusive men knock them around. Teachers with disfiguring facial
scars won't allow themselves to love and be loved because their inner
scars won't heal, they are too deep. And protecting a misfit classmate
from the fists of bullies proves the biggest challenge of all. Paying
it forward requires you "do something big," and that usually
means giving up the beloved crutch, whatever it may be.
Despite the wonderful performances of Osment, Helen Hunt as Trevor's
cocktailing, drunken mom, and a surprising turn by Policewoman Angie
Dickinson, Pay it Forward hobbles along like a three-legged dog.
It is so close to being there - like a sneeze that never finds a release
- but it ends up cheapening any real sentiment the novel provided.
Kevin Spacey has never been bad in a film, though this gig could be
that role singled out in years to come as one of his worst when it should
have been one of his best. There are those of us gals who have waited
patiently for Spacey to move out of playing character roles and into
playing leading men. Now that he's secure as a romantic lead, we can
feel comfortable in our undying lust. Here the word "ham"
would not be out of line. He definitely has his moments, but he's doing
Eugene O'Neill in what amounts to an episode of Touched by an Angel.
Spacey aside, the film flip-flops too quickly, thus leaving an agitated,
frustrated viewer. Just when the Spacey/Hunt love story heats up, we're
thrust into the forced "theme" of how the "Pay it Forward
movement" is infecting awful people everywhere. We don't care about
it or the characters involved in it. We only care about the teacher
with burn scars and his alchy girlfriend. It's safe to say that this
film would have been a great one without the "pay it forward"
hook. The magnetic force is on the relationships between the kid, his
mother and the new man in their lives. Mr. Simonet's past is similar
to his present in a way that good stories are made on - the threat of
repetition and the mystery of attraction; why a man would suddenly feel
something for someone who is an unhealthy choice.
Pay it Forward needed a healthy dose of David Mamet or Russell
Banks along the lines of Affliction. We are talking about some
serious issues here like spousal and child abuse, and alcoholism, yet
this film naively wants us to believe it can be all better with an optimistic
prayer of one child. Moreover, it's insulting, even cheap, in the way
it plays up some of the worst afflictions human beings can suffer like
they were insignificant details that get in the way of the plot: homelessness
and drug addiction.
One notable positive in a film with so many negatives is the setting
- the outskirts of Las Vegas, that, for anyone who's ever been there,
is startling in its expression of lonely isolation. Vegas is not a city
that should always be seen from the outskirts of town in the daytime
- it is forever exposed for those who live there, and the magic will
With such a fine cast and the perfect metaphor of time and place, and
with an entire staff of women behind the film, led by director Leder,
and screenwriter Leslie Dixon (The Thomas Crown Affair), and
based on the Catherine Ryan Hyde novel, it's a shame the film is such
a failure. Women directors are few and far between these days, even
though there are more than ever. But female director or no, this film
is shabbily constructed, poorly written, and ultimately an embarrassment
to self-respecting saints in every city.
In truth, Pay it Forward never should have made it to the big
screen. As a movie-of-the-week millions of people could have watched
and cried and perhaps started their own movement of paying it forward.
As a night at the movies, however, one has every right to hold the theatre
accountable for paying every dollar of it back.