Edith's Review of Pay It Forward
Pay It Forward(2000)
Not as Bad as It Could Be; Not as Good as It Should Be
This movie ended up not only failing to succeed as Oscar bait, it wasn't even Golden Globes bait. I suspect this is largely because of the unnecessary and maudlin ending, but there's more to it than that. It seemed almost as though, every time the movie was picking up and starting to go somewhere, they decided our heartstrings needed a good tugging and stopped the story to give it to us. It also didn't work from me that we were basically reaching the same point in the plot from two directions, though that may in part be because I never have liked Jay Mohr, and while it's pretty clear that he's supposed to be obnoxious here, I still can't get over quite how obnoxious he is. I can't quite recommend it, even though there were moments in it I genuinely liked. I can see why it attracted the cast it did, and I can see why even that cast failed to get this movie better reviews.
Chris Chandler (Mohr) is a reporter hoping to find a big story. At the scene of a hostage situation, the criminal crashes into his car. A total stranger, a lawyer named Thorsen (Gary Werntz), gives him a Jaguar and the instructions to pay it forward. Chandler goes seeking the beginning of this train of good deeds. It all started with a boy, Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment), whose teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), gave his seventh-grade social studies class a year-long extra credit assignment--change the world for the better. Trevor decides to do three major good deeds, and instead of the people he does them for paying him back, they will then turn around and do three major good deeds for someone else, and so on. Exponential growth, though he hasn't studied enough math to know that. His alcoholic mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), is at first shocked and then uneasy, but she does manage to see some of the good that Trevor's idea is doing, even if she isn't always happy about his choices.
I like Helen Hunt. However, she didn't work for me in this role. It wasn't that she wasn't doing a good job, but she did not feel right. Okay, given the age she was at the time, she would have been in her mid-twenties when Trevor was born, but she still felt too old. It could be the trailer trash vibe we're explicitly given. (Really--she actually uses the words "trailer trash" to describe herself at one point.) She was not yet forty when this movie was made, but the effort to make her look like a trailer trash alcoholic made her look [i]old[/i]. And she still looked wholesome, not skanky. She didn't look like she'd fallen on hard times. She looked like she'd made a bad decision about her hair, and that was pretty much it. She could have picked out different clothes, but not even all of her clothes were all that bad. And even when she's able to admit that she needs a drink, she doesn't look like she's in withdrawal. Heck, she doesn't even look thirsty, particularly.
This is another one of those tropes that we get disturbingly often--little kid sets up parent with other person kid happens to know, and the kid knows better than the parent. I mean, okay, Arlene's choice for herself was Ricky, who was not only abusive and negligent but was, when you get right down to it, played by Jon Bon Jovi. So okay, yeah, she could have chosen better. But is there any reason to assume that Trevor's choice would be appropriate just because his choice is a better person? There's a reason Arlene isn't supposed to date until she's been sober for a year, and Eugene knows it, even if Trevor doesn't. She is still figuring out who she is and what's best for her without the added complication of a new relationship. Heck, she can barely handle Trevor, much less someone with all the issues that Eugene turns out to have. And while I freely admit that I can talk over people's heads, Eugene has spent too long trying to force adolescents to think and not dealing with any adults at length other than fellow teachers.
I wanted to like this movie, and I did like it more than I was expecting to. However, the bits with Jay Mohr were persistently distracting. The filming was nothing special. The score was okay, but definitely not Thomas Newman's best. The ending fails to work on at least four levels that I can think of. I will say that I like that this was about ordinary people in Las Vegas, because we mostly don't think of the fact that they exist. Though I'm not sure that helping a criminal escape really counts as a good deed so far as I'm concerned, and I don't think triage in an emergency room operates on the same "if it bleeds, it leads" principle as journalism. "I can't breathe" usually beats "I'm bleeding a little." Still, there are worse movies out there, though I'd also observe that the swearing, and there's a fair amount of it, takes this movie out of the "family viewing" category for most parents, so I'm not entirely sure who this movie is for.