Every once in a very long while Hollywood stops cranking out computer animated adaptations of old cartoons, remakes of J-horror movies, and special-effects bonanzas about shape-shifting robots and decides to MAKE A DIFFERENCE. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the worst thing any film can do is uplift the human spirit. If a movie even attempts to warm the cockles of my black, shriveled little heart I get fighting mad.
2000's Pay It Forward is such a film. Yes, Pay It Forward wasn't just going to win the hearts of Reader's Digest subscribers everywhere and fatten the coffers of Warner Brothers. It was designed to make the world a better place. It was going to infect mankind with the life-changing power of a noble idea. It was to serve as the catalyst behind a million random acts of kindness.
The film united four of 2000's hottest talents. In the lead role of a cranky social studies teacher whose extra-credit assignment to change the world through good deeds has unforeseen consequences they snagged Kevin Spacey, fresh off his second Oscar win. For the challenging part of a recovering alcoholic/cocktail waitress/troubled single mother/skank they miscast Helen Hunt, perhaps the only actress of her generation who can seem maternal while wearing a leather miniskirt, purple wig, and matching bustier. For the crucial role of a whiny little pisher who stops whining and complaining just long enough to change the world they snagged Haley Joel Osment, America's most beloved creepy little weirdo. In the director's seat sat Mimi Leder, hot off the blockbuster success of Deep Impact.
It was a murderer's row of talent that had already peaked creatively and commercially. Spacey was particularly hot. When he won his second Oscar in four years for American Beauty he seemed primed to become Jack Nicholson's heir apparent. He had quirky character-actor intensity and movie star charisma. He could do comedy. He could do drama. He could even sing a little and do bang-up impressions. With a little bit of coaching I'm sure he could probably even learn rope tricks and basic magic. Among the heavyweight thespians of his era he is perhaps the only one who would kill in vaudeville. His act could start with some jokes, segue into his beloved Christopher Walken impersonation, followed by some tunes from the Bobby Darin songbook, some Shakespearean monologues, some light hoofing and for the closer a splashy rendition of "That's Entertainment."
"They say that money changes you/but money don't change you/It just make you more of what you already are," raps Phonte on "That Ain't Love" off the new Little Brother CD Getback. If that's the case then Kevin Spacey was Robin fucking Williams all along. It just took superstardom, money and fame to unleash his inner hack. In K-Pax he played the Robin Williams role of an impish man-sprite who may or not be from outer space. It's easy to imagine Robin Williams in restrained character-actor mode playing Spacey's role here. Here's a list of Spacey's post-American Beauty films: K-Pax, The Shipping News, Ordinary Decent Criminal, Pay It Forward, The United States of Leland, Edison Force, Beyond The Sea, The Life Of David Gale and Fred Claus. Superstardom sure fucked up a promising career. When your most impressive post-second-Oscar role is the bad guy in Bryan Singer's ferociously adequate Superman Returns you might want to consider getting a new agent.
Spacey here plays a deeply scarred–literally and metaphorically–teacher who lards his speech with $50 SAT words like "variegated" and "exigent" and oozes aristocratic disdain for his intellectual inferiors. Apparently operating under the delusion that he's John Houseman in The Paper Chase, Spacey opens Osment's seventh grade social studies class with a hilariously overwrought speech that begins, "Welcome to the seventh grade. Middle school. That hellish, shaky bridge you all must cross before you become members of that undyingly enviable high school elite…Yes, there is a world out there and even if you decide that you don't want to meet it, it's still going to hit you right in the face. Believe me."
That kind of highfalutin' oratory would seem pretentious if delivered to a group of post-graduate students. It's downright comic when addressed to 12-year-olds. When Spacey gives his class an extra credit assignment to, "Think of an idea to change our world and put it into action," his overmatched young charges eloquently deem his idea "hard," "crazy," and "weird," not to mention "a bummer." (Incidentally Hardcrazybummerweird was the original title of TLC's follow-up to CrazySexyCool.)
Osment, however, is inspired. Like a latter-day Deanna Durbin, Osment sets about solving everyone's problems through pluck, resilience and faith in the innate decency of human nature. Like Anne Frank he believes deep down that people are really good after all. Osment quickly hits on what can only be deemed a Ponzi scheme shamelessly exploiting human compassion. He decides to perform random acts of kindness for people on the basis they then return the favor by performing equally random acts of kindness for three more people.
For the first of his favors Osment travels to a nearby Hooverville, where he gives a hand-up to crusty homeless junkie Jim Caviezel. Touched and inspired by the passion of Osment's Christ-like martyr, Caviezel immediately spends the money Osment gives him on nutritious food and shelter. And by "nutritious food and shelter" I of course mean "smack". Delicious, delicious smack.
Undeterred, Osment furtively fixes up angry, agitated gutter-proletariat mom Helen Hunt with his smug, condescending ostentatiously intellectual teacher. Could the two possibly be more compatible? Who wouldn't want to commit instantly to a woman who answers a reasonably innocuous question about Osment's absent father with a defensive, "No, I'm not doin' a bunch of skanky guys instead of spending time with my son, OK?" (For the record she's doin' a bunch of skanky and spending time with her son. There's a big difference.) Opposites may attract but these two barely seem to belong to the same species.
Meanwhile hard-charging journalist Jay Mohr becomes intrigued when Gary Werntz, a mysterious stranger with a beatific smile, gives him a brand new Jaguar on the basis that he "pay it forward" with good acts of his own. (As in many films "hard-charging journalist" functions here as a euphemism for "total douchebag"). His curiosity piqued, Mohr begins investigating the story. In a flashback we learn that Werntz was once helped by a black street hustler (David Ramsey) who, in a frothing fit of altruism, angrily insists that the hospital staff treat the asthmatic daughter of Werntz, a wealthy and prominent white lawyer, before they treat him for some very minor stab wounds. That's fucking hospitals for you: always favoring pistol-toting young black men in doo rags instead of the products of rich white families.
Spacey and Hunt's courtship of the damned continues apace, with these two weary, battered souls uneasily circling around each other, neither willing to let their guard down enough to get hurt. Their relationship is characterized by an utter dearth of subtlety and nuance that infects the entire film. Why bother establishing through inference and understatement that Hunt worries that Spacey doesn't respect her intellectually when you can simply have Hunt burst unexpectedly into Spacey's sad little apartment while he's engaged in some hardcore scrap-booking and have her shout "Do you look down on me?"
Just when it appears that all hope is lost the impossible happens. Osment finally succeeds in getting his smug, condescending and prickly social studies teacher to fuck his mom! Oh joyous day! In other movies this development might be played for laughs but Pay It Forward sees it as an unambiguous good. It's never an encouraging sign when the romantic leads enter a climactic clinch and you find yourself scoffing, "Eh, I give them maybe a week, week and a half, tops."
In short order Hunt and Spacey's happiness is threatened by the return of a shadowy figure from Hunt's past: Osment's father, a hard-drinking, abusive lowlife. The trick here is finding an actor with the sinister gravity to tackle such a heavy, challenging role. So who did the filmmakers get? Mickey Rourke? A young Michael Shannon? Tom Sizemore maybe? Try Jon fucking Bon Jovi.
Spacey is understandably apoplectic that Hunt has gone back to fucking a moonlighting '80s hair rocker. With a single perfect tear streaming down his face, Spacey launches into his big Oscar moment, a floridly overwritten monologue about how his dad used to beat up his mom so bad that he ran away at 13 only to return three years later and have his father smack him upside the head with a two-by-four, douse his body in gasoline and set it on fire. That actually doubles as a vivid metaphor for what the film does to subtlety and understatement: it smacks it with a two by four, douses it with gasoline then sets it on fire.
It would seemingly be hard to top Spacey's big speech for sheer melodramatic shamelessness but Leder and company are more than up to the challenge. For it appears that the seeds of Osment's mercy campaign have sown a rich bounty of selfless acts. Caviezel, for example, refrains from shooting junk long enough to keep a suicidal woman from plunging off a bridge, on the grounds that she, too, pay it forward.
Thanks to Mohr's dogged, obsessive pursuit of the sappy human interest story that is Osment's goodwill campaign, The Pay It Forward movement becomes national news. "There are now confirmed incidents of Pay It Forward in L.A., San Francisco and in Phoenix we're checking to see if the 16 foster children who just received computers is in any way connected to this movement," a newscaster sternly announces on what is apparently the slowest news day in recorded history. Better send your best reporters to check out that red-hot computer-donation story STAT!
Osment, alas, is too pure to live. Just as his movement is taking off he gets stabbed to death while defending a classmate, instantly transforming him into a martyr. (Caviezel was obviously playing close attention). In an insurmountable apex of cheesy shamelessness an army of Pay It Forward cultists appear at Hunt's door with candles burning bright. See, he's dead but his angelic spirit lives on! Cue tears, Oscars and boffo box-office. Or not.
This is the kind of shamelessly sentimental Capra-Corn only the man behind It's A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington could get away with. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker this kind of pandering drivel is doomed to engender nothing but eye rolling, groans and projectile vomiting. I thankfully refraining from splattering the walls of the A.V. Club conference room with the contents of my lunch but by the end of the film my throat was raw from scoffing and groaning.
Pay It Forward is a profoundly schizophrenic film, a misanthropic melodrama about shrill assholes who stop being obnoxious just long enough to indulge in selfless acts of altruism. Osment is for the most part a self-righteous little monster who harangues his mother with withering insults like "You only like people you can get drunk with!" and "I don't want you to love me. I hate the way you look. I hate the way you smell. I hate the way you act. I hate that you're my mother!" Though the film takes great pains to humanize them, Spacey and Hunt both come off as shrill and unlikable. Pay It Forward is a testament to the decency and goodness endemic to the human condition that can never quite bring itself to believe the saccharine horseshit it's spouting.
There's a time and a place for shameless, manipulative tearjerkers like this. It's called the mid-afternoon slot on Lifetime.
Oddly enough the Pay If Forward concept survived the film's critical and commercial failures, even if its stars and director emerged bruised, battered and worse for wear. Leder hasn't directed a feature film since and Osment, Hunt, and Spacey promptly went from red-hot to luke-warm.
To prove that I am a heartless bastard who cares I will pay it forward myself. I've decided to selflessly leave my DVD of Pay It Forward on the seat of a Brown Line El Train car during my dispiriting nightly commute home, along with a note reading, "Dear fuckwad: Please "Pay It Forward" by watching the enclosed DVD, scoffing indignantly, laughing cruelly, then making cutting comments at the appropriate moments. By doing so you are hereby obligated to committing an equally pointless, self-absorbed act of charity for three strangers." It's just my humble, passive-aggressive way of making the world a better place. Oh, and humanity: you're welcome.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure