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[whitespace] 'Pay it Forward'
Forward-Thinking: Social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) inspires his student Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) to try to change the world.

Poor 'Pay'

'Pay it Forward' doesn't do philanthropy any favors

By Richard von Busack

PAY IT FORWARD, a film urging an overworked America back on its aching feet, is propaganda and not much else. You'll know the types: a cynical reporter whose eyes will be shining with the new faith by the time the curtain closes (Jay Mohr in this role). A crusty loner will be redeemed. Here, as social studies teacher Eugene Simonet, Kevin Spacey is literally crusty, his face like a terrapin's from burn scars artfully applied. Even the slattern will be redeemed; Helen Hunt plays Arlene, a woman brought back from drunkenness and single momhood.

Fatherless in Las Vegas, 11-year-old Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) hears Mr. Simonet's assignment to come up with a scheme to change the world. Trevor's idea is to do three important favors for three different individuals, in the hopes that they, in turn, will pass them down to three others--"paying it forward." Trevor's first scheme is to bring home a homeless junkie (James Caviezel)--you can't help wondering if kids nationwide will imitate this stunt, as they supposedly imitate the violence they see. When that doesn't work, he fixes up his mom, Arlene, with Mr. Simonet, who is reticent and shy because of his disfigurement.

As a romance, Pay it Forward cunningly draws out the courtship, attenuated with scenes of the reporter Mohr trying to find the origins of the "pay it forward" scheme. In his subplot's search, he encounters three people enriched--a sweet old lady wino (Angie Dickinson), a buffoonish African American criminal named Sidney, and gruff, rich lawyer Thorsen, who starts the reporter's search by gifting him with a Jaguar.

You can congratulate director Mimi Leder in using all of these extraneous moments to stretch out a romance--everything this side of an earthquake. Still, the scenes of urban life are ridiculously optimistic. The moment of Sidney emptying out his revolver into an emergency room, to speed up treatment for an asthmatic white girl, is extreme even in a year in which the "brother rule"--the necessary sacrifice of the African American character--has been laid down in film after film.

Pay it Forward is the cinematic equivalent of a ceramic unicorn. It's New Age cotton candy, and analyzing it is like parsing greeting card verse. But I resented the theory that people who work as hard as teachers and waitresses do ought to draft themselves into a new thousand points of light movement--there are literally a thousand candles on screen at the end, as we're regaled with a ballad titled "Calling All Angels." Arlene's working two shifts, raising a child singlehandedly and drying out--what more is she supposed to volunteer?

If ordinary people feel that the world is bad, turning the fault on themselves may not be the right place to start. Pay it Forward's final turn reveals a new low in shameless manipulation and soft-witted tearjerking. This ending beat Billy Jack; it beat Love Story--it beat anything I'd seen since I started going to the movies. To match it, you'd have to go back to World War II pictures, when soldiers died smiling, as ready to lay down their lives as the neon pigs on a barbecue joint's sign.

Pay It Forward (PG-13; 125 min.), directed by Mimi Leder, written by Leslie Dixon, photographed by Oliver Stapleton and starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the October 19-25, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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