On the whole, I’ve stopped writing reviews of classic films which I find to be excellent. It was pointed out to me that for the reader, there was very little point in reading yet another glowing review of It’s a Wonderful Life. Fair point. To this end, I’ve begun to focus on writing reviews which I feel to have interesting arguments and opinions. Today’s film, Pay it Forward, is by no means a classic, but it is interesting because the opinions of critics were highly polarised, ranging from gushing to loathing, although a bit more of the latter. At its best, Brian Webster for Apollo Guide wrote: “Optimistic, yet painfully honest, Pay it Forward is an excellent film for those who look for hope amidst the world’s seemingly overwhelming bad news.” At its worst, Peter Travers for Rolling Stone decided “Not since Gump has there been such a pandering, faux-virtuous package of populist pap for Hollywood to shove in the faces of electioneering politicos and say: Look, we don’t just market unwholesome swill to families, we market wholesome swill, too,” whilst Ed Gonzalez for Slant Magazine simply admonished the film as “Sanctimonious drivel.”
Personally, I found it hard to place myself on the spectrum, as I was torn between the very positive aspects of the film, and the very negative. Pay it Forward is a film that is trying to put forward a message of hope in what can often be a very ugly world. After being set an assignment by his faux-philosopher social studies teacher Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey), young Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) invents the method of ‘paying it forward’, whereby each time you do someone a suitably large favour, they then too have to pay it forward to three other people. From this model, it is hoped that the number of good deeds will grow exponentially until they dominate the planet, and everybody is being nice to each other. Awww.
However, there is much more going on in this film too. Trevor’s mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt) is a waitress at a strip bar, and with her son egging her on, falls in love with Mr. Simonet, although he is afraid to do so at first. Their love is contested by Arlene’s drunk husband, played by the conspicuous Jon Bon Jovi, who has recently escaped from prison. Simultaneously, a journalist is following up on the story as he traces back through the people who paid it forward. I say simultaneously, but in fact this takes place four months ahead of the main storyline. Nevertheless, both stories are shown simultaneously, which makes the chronology a lot more confusing than it really needs to be.
Perhaps one of the biggest problems with this film is that there is very little subtlety at all; everything is bold and brash. A man wants to hurry a nurse to help a child whilst in a hospital so he pulls a gun and fires it into the floor. Not a minute after telling Trevor that she loves him, Arlene delivers a powerful smack, which comes right out of nowhere. Our two romantic leads, rather than text or call, drive to each other’s houses repeatedly to either make a point or beg for forgiveness, and give fiercely emotional speeches to each other. And of course there’s the finale too; in what starts as a playground fight, one boy (who looks pre-teen to me) pulls a knife on Trevor and stabs him, which leads to his untimely demise.
Which leads me to the second biggest problem; that ending came right out of nowhere. A film about hope and philanthropy should have a happy ending right? Wrong! At least, that’s what the writers seemed to think. This is not to say that I don’t like surprise endings, or that I don’t like having my expectation subverted. The film simply does not benefit from killing off its protagonist at the end. The quick escalation of the fight seemed so comical that I simply could not revert back to taking the film seriously once Trevor had died. The final minutes of the movie are intent on making its audience weep, but all I could think about was how sloppy the ending was. There was nothing poetic or meaningful in the manner that he died. If the writers were trying to throw in a message about how meaningless death can be then the execution was too tacked-on and sloppy. The way I felt as I watched the ending was similar to how I feel when Alan Sugar fires the wrong person on The Apprentice; confused and underwhelmed.
The characters on the other hand actually had some appeal to them, besides the annoying brat Trevor himself. In general, Trevor has that classic Hollywood ‘more mature than his years’ personality, where he could be incredibly insightful and would appear smarter than the adults. What was weird then, was when he simply acted like a kid, slightly hyperactive, running, jumping and shouting. His news interview was exactly the same, slightly shy, and not able to express himself completely. Kevin Spacey played a fantastic Simonet though, a deep thinker and timid lover, haunted by his disturbing past, which is tactfully revealed near the end of the film. This scene was actually one of my favourites, not only because of Spacey’s well-timed delivery, but more to do with the actual message itself discouraging women from returning to men who abuse them. His quirks involve using long words, much to the annoyance of Arlene, who at one point needs to look up ‘euphemism’ in the dictionary – interesting that she knew how to spell it to look it up in the ‘E’ section. Arlene herself is a troubled individual, a chain drinker with a low-end job doing her best to support her child. She is a bit useless at times, and one believes that Simonet could easily do better.
All in all, there’s more bad than good in this film, yet I found the watch strangely compelling. I was certainly never bored, but rather confused about just what the movie was trying to do. Was it trying to suggest that ‘paying it forward’ could work? Who was the target audience? While the message seem to be rather family oriented, there were many scenes, including the very violent one near the end, that would prevent young children from being able to watch it. I wouldn’t call it drivel or pap, but my Rotten Tomatoes quotable would probably go along the lines of: Pay it Forward is a bold yet fundamentally flawed movie with some interesting ideas.