Once again, Flixster has graced me with a free movie, and once again I could tell right from the beginning it was a case for the Morbid Curiosity Files. Pay It Forward is, in some sense, about karma, and receiving it as a free movie (randomly again) certainly had me thinking about karma. Specifically, what on Earth I could have done to warrant this. Or, if karma is real, just what Flixster’s recompense would be for saddling me with this, 17 Again and Austin Powers while still taunting me with my inability to watch Dog Day Afternoon. Not that I’m really ungrateful, it’s a nice idea and certainly helpful for the blog, but the track record of the movies so far has been more of a torture session than a gift (though they did give me The Iron Giant, so they’ve got that in their favor).
The movie poster highlights the stars of the film, Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment, and their respective critical accolades. It’s rather shameless in its attempt to position itself as a big, important, dramatic Oscar-worthy film. It’s not really any of those things, unless you count self-important and melodramatic.
The poster also presents the film as being fairly wholesome, so the strip club scene must have surprised at least a few parents.
The basic concept of the film, the point it tries to make, is put forward very early in the film. Kevin Spacey plays a badly burned 7th grade social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet, and on the first day of class he gives his students an assignment: come up with one idea to change the world, and put it into action. This is a bit of a heady concept for the typical seventh grader, and arguably is beyond the scope of a junior high social studies class (personally, I was being taught geography and history at that stage), but every melodramatic movie has to have one kid that has a big heart and big ideas, and here that kid is Trevor (Osment). Trevor comes up with the idea of “paying it forward” — when someone does you a big favor, you don’t pay it back, you pay it “forward” by doing three other people big favors, things they can’t do themselves. And to kick it off, Trevor puts it into action by trying to find three people for him to do three big favors for. There’s the film’s high concept, right there: pay your favors forward, do your random acts of kindness, and the world will be a better place. And to show that this isn’t any small flight of fancy, the very first thing Trevor does is hit a hobo village to find a junkie (Jim Caviezel) to bring home and feed and try to get back on his feet.
I see deadbeats.
Look, I know I’m not the ideal audience for this kind of message. By the time I was the age Trevor is in this film, I was already well on my way to being a cynic. But I don’t have to be as wide-eyed as Trevor, or even to be completely receptive to the idea a film puts out if the film is done well. But this film is not done well. Oh, sure, the Oscar-winning and nominated actors all do a pretty good job with their roles. There really isn’t a bad performance in the bunch. But the writing, to put it as succinctly as I can, sucks. Every line of dialogue is wrought with either melodrama or meaning, every scene is as over-the-top as it can be in whatever emotion it’s trying to evoke. The high ideals of the Pay It Forward notion are contrasted with the miserable lives everybody leads. Every possible cloying cliche is trotted out at some point; if it’s not in the forefront of the film, it’s in some character’s back story. Child abuse, drug addiction, alcoholism, spousal abuse, school violence… it’s all there. The film feels like every Lifetime movie of the week rolled into one. Subtlety is not a word that the writers of this film were familiar with. Of course, it’s hardly unusual for a film with a message to be unsubtle, and that lack of subtlety can almost — almost — be forgiven when it gets that message across.
But here, it fails. Hilariously. And I’m not just being a snide reviewer there; I actually burst out laughing several times during the movie solely because of how bad this film is at presenting its message.
A large part of it is simply because of how utterly unlikeable the characters are. Whether a film is trying to present an uplifting message or tug at the heartstrings (and this film goes for broke on both), the characters have to be sympathetic in order for it to succeed. And everybody involved here is an asshole. With the exception of Trevor’s father (Jon Bon Jovi), I don’t think most of them are meant to be, but I’m hard pressed to find any that aren’t. Osment’s character may be the most sympathetic, considering he’s the one who starts it, but he’s still a 7th grader, and a 7th grade boy is always a jackass in some respects. For Trevor, part of that means yelling at his mother for the ways in which she lets him down (and he’s not completely off-base there), but crucially, part of his asshole behavior is the very “pay it forward” plan itself. Not just the fact that he throws a temper tantrum every time it looks like it’s not working out, but also the things he does to kick it off. Inviting a bum into your house may seem like a generous, if incautious, idea at first glance, but it’s pretty darned presumptuous when you’re a twelve year old and it is, therefore, not actually your house. It’s his mother’s place to decide who can and can’t come into the house — that’s part of a parent’s responsibility, after all, to keep the house safe — and Trevor not only usurps this authority casually but acts put out when called on it. Of course, he also usurps her dignity by trying to set her up on a date with his teacher, and this is presented as a good thing despite the huge impropriety of it, their mutual reluctance, the fact that as a recent A.A. member she’s not supposed to be dating anybody yet… all of this is brought up in the film, even, but it’s glossed over in the typical schmaltzy love-conquers-all romance plot.
Even though every responsible adult we know would tell us this is a disastrous idea, let’s heed the advice of the kid who is just barely figuring out that girls don’t actually have cooties.
Of course, it makes some sense that Trevor is an entitled little snot who bosses his mother around. It’s not as though his mother shows any degree of competence. Arlene, played by Helen Hunt, is an alcoholic working as a casino cocktail waitress by day and a stripper by night. Obviously, that’s about as healthy as a gambling addict working as a blackjack dealer, and so although she’s in Alcoholics Anonymous, she falls off the wagon sufficiently often that she can’t really be said to be on the wagon for any significant length of time. She tries to hide the fact that she still drinks from her kid by stashing her booze bottles in out of the way places, such as inside the washing machine. Since she works both days and nights, Trevor presumably does his own laundry, so you can guess how effective a hiding place this is. But nobody would accuse Arlene of being the brightest bulb in the box.
Trevor’s teacher, and it’s worth remembering this is the guy he tries to set her up with, is a smart guy who thinks he’s a really smart guy. He’s a bit smug, more than a bit condescending to people. He’s distant to people, including his students, while at the same time prone to monologuing in front of them like the most self-important college professor at the most out of touch university. To a bunch of seventh graders on their first day of class, no less. He peppers his speech with words like “variegated” and “effusive”, and while he says that’s just the way he talks, it doesn’t come across that way to the other characters nor the audience. I’m hardly one to complain about using fancy words when they’re called for, but it sounds like he’s using ten dollar words simply for the sake of showing off his education.
And really, if you’re going to bust out “effusive”, you might as well go all the way and use “ebullient” instead. It’s much more melodious.
Worse is the way he presents the assignment itself. The assignment to come up with and implement an idea to change the world is stated up front as being extra-credit. Then he mentions they’ll be lucky to get a C in the class without it. He states it’ll be a year-long assignment. He has them stand up in front of the class a few days later to see if they’ve accomplished anything. He says, privately to Trevor’s mother, that he doesn’t actually expect them to accomplish anything, but is just grading on effort, but the whole way it’s presented to the kids just seems like a form of psychological abuse. Extra-credit is, by definition, optional and unnecessary, yet these kids are all required to take part and are told that, effectively, half their grade in this social studies class will be based on it. They’re made to give presentations after a few days on what they’re told is a year-long project, and then after he makes snide remarks about a few of the presentations, he holds up one kid — Trevor, of course — as having come up with something better than he’s ever seen in all his years of teaching. Meanwhile he doesn’t actually believe it’ll amount to anything, so it winds up looking like he’s just singling Trevor out to put one kid above the rest to create feelings of resentment. (All this is before he begins sleeping with Trevor’s mom.) And all the while, we get no indication that he ever teaches these kids anything that would normally be covered in a social studies class. I’m sorry, there’s no way this guy gets out of this with his job intact in any other film.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper uplifting message story if the kid’s idea didn’t wind up spreading. The film actually opens with a reporter, played by Jay Mohr, discovering the “movement” when a complete stranger gives him his Jaguar for free. Of course, the whole reason reporter Chris Chandler needs a car is that he, too, is an asshole; his car was smashed by the car of a fleeing criminal while Chandler was interfering with a hostage situation. The reporter decides to investigate the “Pay It Forward” movement and track down its origins, and so we’re “treated” to two intertwining storylines as Trevor tries to get it started and Chandler tries to find out where it started. This means jumping back and forth between storylines and flashbacks within flashbacks; it’s possible director Mimi Leder could have made this film more disjointed, but probably not without actively trying for it. And, of course, Chandler’s investigation leads him down the chain of favors all the way to Trevor, leading us to see that, yes, every single character along that chain is an asshole too. The “Pay It Forward” movement may as well be called “Assholes Across America”. The people who receive and give the favors are all rude and ungracious at best, and literally criminal at worst.
I don’t just mean this includes some criminals who have heartwarming moments where they do the right thing as a big favor to somebody (though it does have that — I said it includes every cloying cliche and I meant it). I mean some of the favors themselves are criminal acts. Chandler, partly as a “Pay it Forward” and partly to track down the story, gets a convict’s parole hearing moved up several months… by blackmailing the governor. That convict got involved in the chain when a bag lady pulled up alongside him while he was running away from a burglary, verified that he was in trouble (and since he was carrying a large brand new stereo it’s unlikely she misread the situation), and then offered him a lift. Which means this is one of the very few films to present aiding and abetting a criminal act as a sound moral virtue.
Hey, kids! Help out in your community: act as a getaway driver today!
But perhaps the way this film fails the hardest at presenting its message is in the ending. I’m not going to spoil it, but suffice to say that it gives the lie pretty strongly to the idea of good karma, and makes it look like an idea meant to make the world better had strictly negative effects on the local level. Though the film tries to end on an uplifting note — complete with a chintzy song titled “Calling All Angels” — when I reflect on the likely paths of any of the major characters’ lives going forward, I don’t think any of them wind up in a better place than they were before. I’ll admit, I actually laughed at a scene near the end that’s supposed to be a real tearjerker of a scene. This might make me a horrible person, but it was just another example of the movie failing to make its point. And that’s part of why I’m giving this my lowest possible grade. Because it’s an unbearable movie for me to watch, as a cynic… but if I weren’t a cynic, if I were the kind of optimist that this film is meant to appeal to? I would feel downright betrayed by the ending. I’d be spitting nails.
Pay It Forward may have Oscar-caliber actors, but that is literally the only thing it has going for it. Whether you’re receptive to its message or not, I can’t see it going over well. Regardless of its aspirations, this is simply a wretched film filled with wretched characters.