The story, adapted from Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel, is basically an oversimplified Christ allegory in which a smart but troubled 11-year-old boy named Trevor ("The Sixth Sense's" Haley Joel Osment) strives to satisfy a 7th grade social studies assignment to "change the world" with a simple but efficacious plan: seek out and help three individuals in need, asking them, in turn, to do likewise and "pay it forward." But this very novel concept, which lies at the root of virtually all the world's major religions and social organizations, is soon overwhelmed by the film's detour into a tedious, saccharine romance between the boy's burn-scarred teacher (Kevin Spacey) and his alcoholic trailer-trash mother (Helen Hunt). Only when events accelerate the film toward its staggeringly laughable conclusion is the alleged theme brought back to the fore.
The rather obvious tactic of mashing together two recent Oscar winners and a popular recent nominee would be annoying enough if not for the utter awfulness of the film as a whole. Of the three leads, only Spacey is consistently able to rise above the material and invest his character with any degree of believability. Hunt, practically dripping with whorish makeup, does little more than a tramped-up variation on her "As Good As It Gets" character, while the otherwise talented Osment finds himself relegated to precisely the kind of traditional, syrupy child role which "The Sixth Sense" so smartly avoided.
Ironically, it is the film's best performance that also underscores its most pervasive problems. In what should have been an intolerable caricature of a dirty, drug-addicted homeless man, Jim Caviezel ("Frequency") is magnetic and engaging, empathetic when everything around him is simply pathetic. Unfortunately, the film possesses far more caricatures than characters, showering the audience a with virtual potpourri of society's rejects and outcasts. In the "Pay It Forward" view of tragedy, however, no amount of ugliness can be too ugly, no degree of misery can be too miserable lest the film miss its broad target demographics in America's famously mushy heartland.
While it is often popular to lay the lion's share of blame for a bad film on the director, "Pay It Forward" is bad enough for the blame to go all the way around, from director Mimi Leder to screenwriter Leslie Dixon to novelist Hyde to producers Peter Abrams, Robert Levy and Steven Reuther, to executive producer Jonathan Treisman, who optioned the property in the first place. It's a particularly regrettable misstep for Leder, attempting here to transition to straight drama from her previous action films, "The Peacemaker" and "Deep Impact." It's little comfort, though, for those who will have to bear the greatest burden of the film's failure--the audiences unlucky enough to have to sit through it. Starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, James Caviezel, Jon Bon Jovi and Angie Dickinson. Directed by Mimi Leder. Written by Leslie Dixon. Produced by Peter Abrams, Robert Levy and Steven Reuther. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence. Running time: 122 min