Pay it Forward  (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

When this film was in the process of being released, it was being trumpeted as a strong Oscar candidate. Something went wrong along the way. Some critics liked it, some people talked it up, but the general consensus was that it was nothing but orchestrated mush.

I agree with that up to a point. 

I believe they had a beautiful seed for a movie, but didn't cultivate it properly.

It has some real strengths.

  • Kevin Spacey seemed to be the right choice to play the social studies teacher who challenges his students to change the world. 
  • Haley Joel Osment was cast as the student who takes his teacher seriously, and he is one of the best little kid actors in existence. With some showbiz kids, there's no way to tell if they will make good adult actors (Judy Garland, e.g.). With some it is obvious that they will not (Jerry Mathers, Shirley Temple), because their entire schtick is an exaggeration or distortion of childhood, and adult acting is generally about reality, not distortion. I think Osment will be a successful adult actor. In fact he already is an adult actor trapped temporarily in a little kid's body.
  • While Helen Hunt seemed to be miscast as the trailer-trash, abused, alcoholic mom who keeps telling Spacey not to use such big words, she is a performer who can reach inside and find some truth in a character, and she did well enough. 
The script was clever in some ways. It is told both forward and backward. Osment devises the pay-it-forward system in a Las Vegas classroom. The idea is that one must do a good deed for three other people with no other condition other than that they have to do the same for three other people. Somewhere in the future, Jay Mohr is a reporter who discovers the cult of pay-it-forward in Los Angeles, and is trying to trace back its origins. The structure was fine, and the Mohr path allowed the story to add some humor, as he tracked down some dead ends, and tried to separate the truth from the embellishments. 



Helen Hunt is seen in a bra.

 So what went wrong?

First of all, the film was such an obvious attempt to recreate the feeling of American Beauty, right down to what sounded to me like the exact same music.

Second, what are these good deeds, exactly? Hunt's mom (an unrecognizable Angie Dickinson) helps a fleeing felon, loot in hand, escape from the police. And that was a good idea because ...... ??? 

Third, after all these months, the reporter is able to trace an act of generosity toward him directly back to the little kid. That's the whole cult of pay-it-forward. At the end, a news announcer wonders if a mysterious anonymous donation was related, but nobody is sure. Not much of a cult.

Fourth, there was indeed an act of great generosity and forgiveness in the film. Hunt forgave her abusive husband when he came back sober and asked for another chance. That should have been the one that turned everything around. OOPS! That turned out to be a bad thing. The guy had been sober for five months, but he hit the bottle immediately on his return, like the next day or something, and started threatening his family.

So what have we learned so far? Helping an escaping felon is a good thing. Forgiving someone who really seems to have reformed is a bad thing. OK. Hey, I'm a lot more moral than I thought.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • Full-length director commentary

  • Making-of featurette


Finally, and of greatest importance, why did the story need to lead to the death of the little kid, and the sappy candlelit vigil maintained at his house? That story before that was sentimental, and necessarily a bit manipulative, but I was OK with it. What the hell is wrong with a little sentiment?

But the ending was simply designed to manipulate the audience, nothing else. All the points had already been made 15 minutes earlier. The death and vigil just added lots of hankie action. Get the audiences crying when the kid dies doing a good deed, then really pull out all the stops in the vigil, with the song about the little angel, and the close-ups of the faces in the crowd, blah, blah.

If they hadn't created that obviously manipulative and unnecessary ending, I'd probably be willing to recommend it to you as a sweet natured and gentle fable to share with your kids. But that schmaltzy ending totally destroyed it for me. Sorry. I guess I'm allergic to angels. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Maltin 2/4, Apollo 86.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 41% positive reviews

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.0, Apollo users 67/100. 
  • With their dollars ... a very weak performer. made for $40 million, it grossed only $33 million domestically, on 2130 screens. Given additional sources of income, it won't cripple any investors, but neither will it prompt them to seek new tax shelters.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C.

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