- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2000

''Everybody makes mistakes," a character observes in "Pay It Forward," which emerges as a big mistake of polemical-inspirational-tragical tendencies and miscalculations.

Prematurely touted by Warner Bros. as the leading Oscar contender of 2000, "Pay It Forward" has recruited a talented trio of actors to dignify its mawkish miseries: Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, already Academy Award winners, and Haley Joel Osment, the precocious near miss of "The Sixth Sense."

The pretext might have been irresistible catnip for Hollywood, because it suggests an update of Capraesque uplift. In retrospect, the uplift might have flourished with more conviction and integrity in a vintage Frank Capra time frame: the Great Depression.

Director Mimi Leder strives for stark pathos by placing the characters in contemporary Las Vegas, where a boy named Trevor (Haley) lives on the seedy fringes of the Strip with his struggling, separated mother, a cocktail waitress and casino spotter named Arlene McKinney (Miss Hunt). She also has a drinking problem and can't quite remember where she has stashed all the vodka bottles.

On the first day of school, Trevor is motivated by a social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Mr. Spacey), who proposes a lofty extra-credit project: Devise a plan to improve the world. Lacking a secure domestic foundation, Trevor attempts to compensate with a charitable scheme that he also tests in private: doing gratuitous favors for people. Instead of returning the favor, beneficiaries will be urged to rechannel the generosity to other people. Theoretically, a mere three favors from one do-gooder will multiply in mysterious but influential ways when "paid forward," affecting strangers who become part of a grandiose chain of benevolence.

In fact, one of the conceits of the plot is that Trevor's scheme already has ramified into a "movement." It has reached the attention of a reporter in Los Angeles, played by Jay Mohr. The continuity shuttles somewhat awkwardly between this character's desire to trace the origins of a supposedly onrushing social phenomenon and the circumstances that prompted it a few months earlier. The plot, an extended flashback, eventually crosses paths with the backward-glancing subplot.

This structural trickiness is less problematic than the failure to depict a persuasive groundswell of do-good behavior. If anything, Trevor's efforts to practice what he has envisioned undercut the inspirational bombast that is invoked to engulf the boy in sanctimonious sentiment during the finale, orchestrated to a shamelessly beseeching anthem titled "Calling All Angels."

Ostensibly, the pay-it-forward system should be applied to strangers. Trevor begins that way by taking in a derelict (Jim Caviezel), a gesture that probably will strike genuine terror into parents who let themselves get caught unawares at the movie. However, his main project is a matchmaking scheme to set up his demoralized mom with Mr. Simonet, who displays literal scars the ravages of facial burns suffered during his boyhood. The circumstances become the pretext for Mr. Spacey's most unactable scene, a traumatic monologue.

Unfortunately, it becomes far too easy to snigger at the love match of emotionally needy Mr. Simonet and Mrs. McKinney, especially when a bedroom interlude goes all misty about his scars. I'm not even sure it's such a brilliant idea to underline Mr. Simonet's loneliness by indulging two scenes in which he's ironing clothes. The pathetic fallacy skates on thin ice while we contemplate the poignant solitude of man and hot iron.

1 and 1/2 out of four stars

TITLE: "Pay It Forward"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual allusions; an interlude recalling an abusive father who tortures and disfigures a child)

CREDITS: Directed by Mimi Leder. Screenplay by Leslie Dixon, based on the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Cinematography by Oliver Stapleton. Production design by Leslie Dilley. Music by Thomas Newman

RUNNING TIME: Two hours

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