Film Reviews


By • Oct 20th, 2000 •

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I hate feel-good movies with messages. So I’m sitting at the pre-screening prepared to hate PAY IT FORWARD. Here’s what I know: It’s about an eleven year-old whose class project is to try and change the world: To do good. The kid decides to help three people who really need help and then ask each one to help three other people – to “pay it forward.”

Well, I love the term, even if I never read about Yahweh mentioning it in The Old Testament.

Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) lives in a really terrible, rundown, dirt poor section of . . . hey, that’s the skyline of Las Vegas! I didn’t know my adopted city could look so destitute, so gritty, so much like Calcutta, India. Helen Hunt is fantastic as Trevor’s alcoholic mother Arlene. Right now, Hunt’s performance is the strongest of the year. I don’t know how anyone else can top it. This is a strong, fearless performance. At one point the audience gasped at how Hunt looked – ragged, hung over, and every inch a woman who has lost the battlefield for her looks. Arlene’s got bleached platinum hair and is a decade too old to wear belly shirts. (However, this is not an uncommon look around Las Vegas’ Freemont Street). Arlene also has two jobs, sleeps in her makeup, and misses her abusive, drinking-buddy husband Rick, played well by Jon Bon Jovi (he’s paying his dues and delivers the goods!). Kevin Spacey plays Eugene, Trevor’s social studies teacher, a man with a seriously disfigured face. Spacey embraces this character’s life completely.Having just watched L.A. CONFIDENTIAL on TV, the physical transformation Spacey undergoes is palpable. Spacey submerges every charismatic ploy he has nurtured to play a man without a sexual aura. It’s a pretty tough, and thankless role, to do.

Osment is divine. The camera sits right on his face – not for one moment allowing him to slip a fake emotion on to the screen. What more can we ask for? The three of them together in a tough movie aided by a score totally unsentimental (though owing a large tribute to the score for AMERICAN BEAUTY). How about a climax that is not absurd?

Las Vegas is at life’s dead end, all the characters are rightfully bitter and angry, and Trevor’s project keeps failing. So it’s about real life. Trevor decides to put his project in motion by helping a homeless, drug addict (played by James Caviezel). He gives him money and a place to stay. The guy returns to drugs. Then Trevor fixes up Eugene with Arlene. This goes poorly. There’s just too much emotional backfire choking these two. Trevor’s last project is a boy who is constantly terrorized by school bullies. Trevor is afraid to help him. Everything is working for this to be a really good film – then is crashes and burns with an ending Warner Bros. asks reviewers not to reveal.

I’m confused by the ending. I mean I’m confused by the moral meaning of the ending. “Pay It Forward” – as a movement – pays off for everyone but Trevor. An eleven year-old martyr? So, is Trevor like the new Christ?

PAY IT FORWARD seems to confirm the saying that no good deed goes unpunished.

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