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Praise God and pass the saccharine

'Pay It Forward' delivers gooey, teary message


In this story:

Good deeds

Hammering the message

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

(CNN) Mimi Leder's "Pay It Forward" has to be the most oppressive "feel good" picture in movie history. It's like a Frank Capra story that's covered in track marks and scar tissue.

The film is about a Las Vegas seventh grader whose good works spark a veritable cross-country brushfire of community service and spiritual rebirth. Better head for the hills if that sounds like trouble. People are either going to cringe their way through this movie or walk out thinking they've been touched by God. One character is even transformed into a makeshift Christ figure before it's all over.

Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), is the unfortunate bearer of all that disfigurement. His face and neck were badly burned at some point in his life, and he's missing an entire eyebrow. The cause of his wounds turn out to be one of the many back flips that screenwriter Leslie Dixon (who adapted Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel) makes during the final 40 or so minutes of the film.

Eugene starts the ball rolling by giving his students a year-long assignment. He tells them to think of something that will change the world for the better, then institute a plan to make it happen.

Good deeds

One student, Trevor (Haley Joel Osment), comes up with a doozy -- the kind of thing that would be doomed to immediate failure in the real world, but works beautifully in the movies. He proposes that everyone should perform a special deed for three people who need help. It has to be something they can't do on their own, something important. Then each of those three people are supposed to do favors for three other people, and so on, and so on. In effect, you pay the favor forward, instead of paying it back ... which explains the lousy title.

Eventually, this turns into a slowly escalating movement that makes its way to Los Angeles, where a TV reporter (Jay Mohr) whose van has been demolished in a wreck, is given a brand-new Jaguar by a complete stranger. Just like that.

The stranger explains the "pay it forward" concept, then Mohr follows the trail of life-affirming favors back to Nevada. Go ahead and roll your eyes if you feel like it. If, on the other hand, that sounds even remotely reasonable, run out a buy a ticket.

Trevor's bleached-blonde mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt, all trashed-up), is a struggling alcoholic who works two jobs, including serving drinks as a barely dressed waitress at a strip club. Hunt must have aerobicized for months in preparation for the role; you could bounce a quarter to the ceiling off of her stomach.

Kevin Spacey plays it different in 'Pay It Forward'
Movie trailer for 'Pay it Forward'

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Part of Trevor's "pay it forward" plan involves changing Arlene's life. He eventually hooks her up with his psychologically crippled school teacher. But these two wounded souls have a lot of healing to do before they can love-love-love each other. This necessitates oodles of acting -- so much, in fact, that Spacey and Hunt might as well be wearing Academy Award Winner T-shirts.

Hammering the message

That's not to say that they're bad. They're actually quite good. It's just that every other scene involves binge drinking, horrifying disclosures, self-flagellation or morbid declarations of mistrust toward mankind.

It's amazing that Spacey does such a solid job, when you consider how badly he could have chewed on the scenery in this particular role. For once, he's playing a character who can't shake off his problems with slowly enunciated glibness. Eugene is a wreck, but you start to pull for him in spite of the movie's grandstanding style.

The same can't be said of a homeless heroin addict played by Jim Caviezel. Every time he makes an unexpected appearance, you wish he would just nod out. Angie Dickinson also plays a drunken bag lady. The less said about that, the better.

This is the "just say no" of message films. The simplistic "pay it forward" concept is cited repeatedly, as if merely suggesting to bad people that it would be really great if they started being nicer to everyone is enough to revive humane impulses in a collapsing culture.

Its easy answers make it the perfect film for an election year, which means that it'll probably be a big, fat hit. The filmmakers also see to it that the mechanics of Trevor's plan are not only bluntly stated throughout the picture, but literally spelled out on a blackboard in one of the first scenes. Mr. and Mrs. America aren't likely to miss the point if they glance down at their bucket of popcorn.

Whenever critics decry a director for being manipulative, there's always someone who stands up to say that manipulation is the basis of cinematic story-telling. Well, that may be true, to a certain extent. But there comes a point in "Pay It Forward" where you feel like you're trapped in an emotional taffy-pull. Leder and Dixon keep at it, almost non-stop, for two hours.

You may bawl your eyes out before it's over, but it's a toss-up whether you'll be doing it out of sheer emotion or because you think the damned thing will never end.

"Pay It Forward" contains some profanity, but it's nothing too harsh. There's also a tender sex scene between Spacey and Hunt. Oddball thing to look for: At one point, Spacey climbs into his car, and there's a big cardboard box in the back seat. Stamped on its side are the words "Extra Large Box," which pretty much nips any confusion in the bud. Rated PG-13. 117 minutes.

'Sixth Sense' star: 'I do believe'
August 20, 1999

Play It Forward

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