Set in the viper's nest of Vegas, Pay It Forward introduces us to Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), a social studies teacher who kicks off the school year by greeting his class of world-weary seventh-graders with an unusual challenge. "Yes, there is a world out there," he announces, "and even if you don't want to meet it, it's still going to hit you right in the face." Indeed, something has hit Eugene right in the face, eliciting an initial gasp from his punk munchkins, as his neck and much of his lower jaw are covered in rubber cement designed to look like scar tissue. His challenge--complete with extra credit--is simple: Go do something that changes the world for the better. Due to some deep, inexplicable spiritual longing (perhaps, who knows, having to do with seeing dead people?), 11-year-old Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) overrides his initial skepticism and decides to embrace the project. Naturally, he immediately invites a homeless junkie named Jerry (James Caviezel) home for some peanut butter crunch and a flop.
This creates a stir in the McKinney home, however, as Trevor's alcoholic single mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), works two jobs (by day a casino change girl, by night a strip-club waitress) and has no time for peculiar surprises--only dependable, clandestine dates with her vodka bottle, which she keeps hidden in the washing machine. Trevor is unable to conceal his derelict charge for long, and, despite his timid presence (emphasized by a T-shirt with a deer on it), pop goes Caviezel. Arlene, enraged by what she perceives as Eugene's indirect meddling in her unhappy tract house, lets her rigid nipples lead her to the lair of the exceedingly eloquent but emotionally shielded teacher. An obvious match made in heaven (she's brash, he's defensive, they're both grotesque), the unlikely lovers get off on a terribly wrong foot, with Eugene's praising Trevor's exegesis and Arlene's feeling subjugated by the teacher's superior vocabulary. Enraged at Eugene's seeming smugness, she attacks his pet project, even when he attempts to defer responsibility for his students' actions, explaining, "Every now and then they clean up a little graffiti before they lose interest."
A framing device and parallel story illustrate that Trevor's take on the assignment--the cheesy pay-it-forward paradigm of the movie's promotional campaign (basically a plea for random acts of kind malarkey, in triplicate)--has lost no one's interest, and has even gained momentum across the country. While Trevor's classmates initiate some truly inventive schemes (one clever boy proudly establishes a Web site to cajole all the children in China to jump up and down at the same time, thereby throwing the earth off its axis), our boy-hero's plan for happy favors grows a life of its own.
Cultivated by a wide spectrum of characters, ranging from token black convict Sidney (David Ramsey) to a sharp-witted white lawyer called Thorsen (Gary Wentz, the director's husband), the concept of paying-it-forward spreads. Connecting these dots is Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr), a crass, fast-talking Los Angeles reporter who ardently pursues the steadily growing phenomenon with his eye on the Pulitzer. When, in the movie's disjointed opening sequence, Chandler's Mustang is destroyed at a crime scene, the lawyer immediately bestows to him, with no strings attached, the keys to his pristine new Jaguar. As the film's knowing testament to its own cuteness, Chandler initially refuses the gift, asking if it's merely an incentive for him to kill Thorsen's wife. "No," replies Wentz, deadpan. "Tempting...but no."
This sort of self-reflexive wink-wink would be utterly intolerable if it didn't fit so well into the project's disarming, down-with-it atmosphere. This is, after all, a world in which mothers allow their young sons to apply their deodorant, in which the nation is casually dismissed as "a shithole," in which bad kids (who sneak knives past their school's post-Columbine metal detectors) wear their requisite Bugle Boy fashions with pride. Based on the previously unpublished novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, the screenplay by Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire, Outrageous Fortune) offers a symbolic cross section of contemporary Americana that grows more plausible as the movie simultaneously alarms and soothes our paranoid brain cells.
It's a little bit sickening to be sounding the Oscar trumpet so far in advance, but the performances--purposefully clunky, junky, and funky--are by far this production's strongest suit. As if it weren't enough to receive fine supporting work from Jon Bon Jovi in a wife-beater shirt as Trevor's deranged father and Angie Dickinson as an absentee, alcoholic grandmother, the other adults arrive far above expectations. Caviezel instills his artless dodger with hangdog hope, and, for most of the story, Mohr's scoop seeker is, fittingly, probing yet unpleasant, like some inaccurate rectal thermometer. Topping the bill, Hunt is willing to spend half the movie looking like a train wreck, and it's to her credit that she actually manages to hypnotize us into buying her as a working-class bimbo. Her scenes with Spacey--who delivers his most vulnerable and expressive performance to date--provide plenty of emotional pyrotechnics. When Eugene explains to Arlene, from experience, that all a father needs to do to destroy a child is simply to not love him, the resonance haunts the theater.
Pay It Forward will be prompting much talk this season, and possibly even some action, but there's nothing particularly new or intriguing about its elements. Goodness knows we've seen enough irritable professors fighting to educate reactionary youths, and bum dads are a dime a thousand. By the end, when Leder has gained our undivided attention, it's a shame she decides to descend into pabulum--a candlelight vigil by way of a Coke commercial. All in all, it's good to know that this gargantuan inspirational pamphlet isn't foolproof (if it were, Warner Bros. would be obliged to pay forward their copious returns). To escape the reprogramming, ask yourself this question: If someone gives you a ration of shit, should you also pay that forward?