Poor Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment). He’s only in seventh grade and already his life is chucky-full of worries. His mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt) works in a Las Vegas casino, is an alcoholic, and has terrible bleached blond hair. His dad, Ricky (Jon Bon Jovi) is a classic deadbeat, showing up occasionally and staying just long enough to present some promise of reform and then beat up Arlene and terrify Trevor. His grandmother, Grace (Angie Dickinson), lives in her station wagon. His best friend Adam is repeatedly the victim of a school bully, which big-hearted Trevor is finding increasingly difficult to tolerate. Living in the not-quite wide open, underclass-housing spaces of Nevada, Trevor looks out his little bedroom window and sees a bleak horizon.
And then, Trevor’s life changes. His social studies teacher for the new school year Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) gives the class a project: do something to change the world. The camera pans the faces of the expectant youngsters, some mystified, some beginning to be bored, some rolling their eyes. When the camera gets to Trevor, you can see that his little mind is percolating. As Mr. Simonet’s lilting but insistent voice lays out his premise and expectations, Trevor is visibly moved. A few days and daily-life montage sequences later, he’s come up with an idea: he decides to do “something big” for three people who “really need it,” with the understanding that each will do the same for three more. Soon, the whole world will be populated by do-gooders, all working toward the end of worry.
If this all sounds a little too contrived and striving-to-be-uplifting, well, it is. Unfortunately, however, the premise of Pay It Forward that this sad and fretful little boy is inspired to reach out and touch a few someones, most especially his cranky mom and lonely teacher, both desperately in need of sex is actually its least annoying aspect. Much worse is its carefully orchestrated alternations between episodes that are heart-warming and heart-wrenching. After a while, the whole thing made me feel worried, and I had walked into the theater feeling pretty fine. Doubly unfortunately, these tonal shifts are accompanied by Thomas Newman’s quirky piano-tablas-dulcimer-y score, sounding much the same as the one he composed for last year’s multi-Oscar-winning movie, American Beauty, in which Spacey played another frustrated, over-disciplined mid-life crisis candidate. And as soon as you notice these minor similarities, you’re doomed, because there are others, which are increasingly distracting. Though American Beauty takes place in wealthy white suburbs and Pay It Forward in the working class nowhere of the desert, both movies feature a wise and martyred soul, recovering abuse victims, and touching climaxes that let everyone walk out of the theater thinking they’re better people for understanding their transparent and supposedly profound “meanings.” American Beauty had a slightly snarkier edge to its presentation of these meanings, not to mention the Dreamworks heavy-hitting promotions team behind it, and Pay It Forward is more content to wallow in soap opera, so its meanings have less immediately apparent resonance.
Then again, the simpery tedium of Pay It Forward hardly depends on its superficial relation to American Beauty. No, Pay It Forward comes up with its insipidness and condescension toward its characters all on its own.
Let’s begin with the plot. Pay It Forward rigs its profound meanings through a series of devices that manage to be both amazing and banal. Perhaps forgivably, since he is so young, Trevor makes his first do-gooding target a homeless man (though Preston Sturges managed this trick in Sullivan’s Travels, here, the “use” of the homeless as a means to move its audience is affected and patronizing). On his way home from school one day, Trevor stops by the local homeless camping spot apparently they all hang out by the burning trash barrels together, down by the “tracks” or some other such fantastical place, where they eat cupcakes and smoke cigarettes and drink whatever booze they can find. Here Trevor finds a junkie named Jerry (James Caviezel), whom he brings home for a dinner of Cap’n’ Crunch and Pepsi, while mom is off at work. When Arlene comes home, she’s understandably upset when she learns that the grimy stranger sleeping in her garage is a homework assignment, and promptly huffs off to the school to chastise Eugene. Conveniently, this encounter initiates the next step in Trevor’s plan, which is to get his mom and his favorite teacher together, initially made difficult by the facts that Eugene is a badly scarred burn victim and a self-conscious virgin, and Arlene is, despite the advice of her AA mentor, still willing to give Ricky another go. She does this despite the fact that she promises Trevor that she’ll never hurt him again, and of course, disappointment helps grease the wheels for audience expectations. Lesson to be learned: “pay it forward” is a great idea, but it depends on people keeping promises, which most find very hard to do.
Still, to make sure that you know it really is a great idea, the movie folds in another plot layer that emphasizes its phenomenon-ness. This involves media participation: reporter Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr) is tracking the story some months after the idea has started. This means that most of the movie is technically a flashback (brief background: Chris is the recipient of one magnanimous gesture, and pursues the story to further his career, but he soon learns the meaning of generosity, and becomes a convert, etc.). Chris’ not exactly parallel storyline looks like it might approximate narrative complexity, but more importantly, it’s a way for the film to grant significance to domestic crises: the traumas Arlene and Ricky and Eugene endure (and the range of characters here is very narrow) are meaningful because they “reveal” working class interior lives to the mainstream movie audience who goes to Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt movies. The movie pretends to be sympathetic to them, but the tragedies keep on coming, in a way that is so overkill that you can’t help but drop your jaw in wonder. This kid has reason to worry.
In other words, Pay It Forward pushes very standard emotional buttons, particularly through Osment, apparently a born button-pusher, with his always-a-little-damp eyes, seeming frailty, and adorably lilting voice. His co-stars are less successful, relying on melodramatic conventions and make-up (this for Spacey’s part and his face is cornily hidden from your view for the first few minutes you see him, so you’ll be startled when you do see him, I guess). The first melodramatic turn is mostly Arlene’s department: at one point, when she’s had a really bad time of if, she rushes to the garage to glug a hidden bottle of booze. Here, Hunt is looking too much like Courtney Thorne-Smith’s Alison looked during the couple of weeks she was an alcoholic on Melrose Place, that is, working very hard to appear desperate. Surely Arlene has much to mourn (not least being her Erin Brockovich-style “low-class” midriff blouses and tacky pumps), but you can’t help feeling that the film is only setting her up for upcoming developments, namely, her recovery and redemption. The second turn is Eugene’s, when he must reveal the cause of his burns, and an awful tale it is. Too bad he has to deliver it in a scene that needs a rewrite.
Such heavy-handed plot designing and telegraphing makes the film more tedious than rousing. Directed by Mimi Leder and written by Leslie Dixon, based on Catherine Ryan Hyde’s 1999 novel (which reportedly has Eugene as a black man apparently an interracial relationship was too much to contemplate, even between working class characters…), Pay It Forward is best when it doesn’t try too hard to be deep, when, for instance, it lets images rather than situations make its point. So, when Chris is hot on the trail of his next lead getting ever closer to the moment when he will put little Trevor on television and turn the boy’s saga into “history” his car appears small in an overhead shot, on the road leading to what may or may not be his own destiny: despite the shot, it’s hard to care which, because the image is so familiar and the stakes seem so trite. Or, while Eugene describes for his students the ways that their limited, 11-year-old perspectives might or might not have anything to do with a “global” network, the huge window behind him reveals the incredible Nevada vista, mountains and blue sky. More often, though, the movie loses perspective. And then your worries mostly have to do with when it will all be over.