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Overall Rating

Awesome: 23.84%
Worth A Look26.49%
Average: 13.25%
Pretty Bad26.49%
Total Crap: 9.93%

9 reviews, 97 user ratings

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Pay It Forward
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Erik Childress

"Great Performances Save Ending From Itself"
4 stars

One can usually sense how much they are going to like a movie by what happens in the first 15 minutes. Snappy dialogue, good laughs, or a grab-you setup and one can reasonably assured that this has the opportunity to be one of those rare films that come out each year that finds itself towards the top of the list you recommend others see. Pay It Forward has a beginning like that. Unfortunately it has an ending that makes you wish you left the theater during the final 15.

Kevin Spacey plays a variation on Mel Gibson’s Man Without a Face character, a 7th-grade teacher named Eugene Simonet who likes to use big words and attempts to inspire his class on the first day of school. The extra credit assignment? Think of an idea that can change the world. The way this scene plays out, with Spacey delivering a great monologue and than answering his students’ questions intelligently and realistically, set me up for the entire movie. One of those students is Trevor (Haley Joel Osment), an 11-year old without many friends and an unhappy homelife to boot. His mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt) is a Vegas waitress by day and by night who, against the wishes of her 12-step program and her son, likes to dive into a bottle whenever things get too rough. Trevor wishes everything could be right with the world so he comes up with a fascinating idea. He will help three people in a way that proves too difficult for the person to handle by themselves and in return they will “pay it forward” and help out three people and so on and so on like a positive reinforcement of the Outbreak virus. Trevor starts with a homeless man (James Caviezel) but then moves on a little closer to home to help both his mom and his teacher find love.

This impending love story then takes over the film and its characters, only to occasionally bring us back to the central idea of its title. We also cutaway frequently to Jay Mohr as reporter Chris Chandler (not the QB of the Atlanta Falcons) who is the recipient of the pay-it-forward help plan four months after the idea was put into place. This leads him on a “rosebud”-like search to discover the origin of this proposed generosity and the audience on a flashback ride that will lose you easily if you’re not paying attention. We start in the film’s present and then go back four months to bring us up to date. Meanwhile we keep flashforwarding up to the reporter’s search whose story continues to move forward as he gets more information and witnesses that tell their own tales which flashback earlier again, but still weeks or months ahead of the original flashback to the four-month point. So the whole time the past is trying to catch up with the present, which is continually moving forward. Ironic how a film with this title can attempt to accomplish such a feat.

It’s this kind of ineptitude at the screenplay level that prevents Pay It Forward from becoming the thing of beauty it wants to be. Yet through all the inconsistencies and timeline jumps, I found myself totally absorbed thanks to three strong performances that elevate the material to a kind of melodramatic leap of faith. Spacey is absolutely terrific (as always) as the scarred teacher, able to draw our attention away from his burns and watch what is going on just beneath. And young Haley Joel Osment becomes his equal, in a role that requires all the childhood optimism and fears that we all go through pulled off with such delicacy that he has certainly proven that he can play with the big boys. Going up and down the list of scenes that were developed as true acting moments, all the ones between Spacey and Osment rank right at the top. Besides that opening monologue, there’s a beautiful little scene where Trevor asks his teacher outside of class if he was being honest with him or just doing his job as a teacher. It’s a flawless scene right up to its conclusion when Spacey realizes he’s made the wrong assumption. In between the two of them is Helen Hunt, who loses some of the mannerisms she perfected on Mad About You that subsequently transferred to the big screen and makes her mother a little darker and a little less intelligent than some of her other film characters. One could deduce that this is what happens to her waitress from As Good As It Gets years after the relationship with Nicholson doesn’t work out.

The relationship that Hunt’s character has with Spacey’s is both involving and frustrating. They have many great scenes together, but keeps drifting apart, first for reasons that are believable and then because the plot needs them to. Still the film drags you along for the ride, partly due to the wave of cynicism that runs through it. A really manipulative film (as some circles have described this) would embrace little Trevor’s idea as something that would and could work in the world we live in. But Trevor finds himself unable to complete the goals he sets up for himself, as the people he chooses to help don’t just neglect to follow through on their favors, but are unable to even help themselves. If screenwriter Leslie Dixon would have concentrated on the societal impact of the pay-it-forward plan instead of the physical and emotionally scarred relationship between the mother and teacher, this is a film that could have ranked as a modern classic.

And while I found myself engrossed in that coupling and the movie in general, Pay It Forward is betrayed by an ending so ridiculous and all the more frustrating, because it didn’t need it. The film has a natural ending. There’s not a struggle of Coppolaesque proportions to find an ending after they’ve gone so far off the plank they need a way to stop it. The scene at the school with the interview and the lockers is the ending, and with perhaps a brief moment of wrap-up, we have a movie that I can really embrace. But it doesn’t end there. It goes on for another ten minutes with this “Field of Dreams” ending that is not earned in the slightest. It’s a betrayal of the attitude taken during the film and of realism in general. It’s also an unwarranted attempt to stick a knife right through the heart of the audience, when if the film continued to play its cards right, would have already had our hearts in the right place to begin with.

Pay It Forward is an odd little gem and disaster as a film. It has a lot of wonderful ideas, some great Oscar-worthy performances and Godard’s rule of three great scenes. It begins as an interesting examination of social themes and a wonderful story about the role of a teacher and how teachers are now perceived in our society. I wish I had a teacher like Spacey and I wish more scenes had taken place in the classroom. I wish this were the movie it was cracked up to be. But, unfortunately, Godard’s rule about what constitutes a good movie not only calls for three good scenes, but no bad scenes. The ending to Pay It Forward is bad enough for a hundred poorly conceived scenes. Therefore, my good deed (to hopefully more than three people who read my reviews) is that if you choose to go see this movie, walk out immediately after the kiss between the lockers that you’ve already seen in all the previews. That way you’ll be denied either the anger I felt or having to waste a few sheets of Kleenex. This is a perfect example of how a movie, no matter how great it starts out can sink under the weight of its own sincerity and misguided attempt to make us cry. But I cannot deny the film had me for most of its running time and on that basis and the strength of the performances I am giving it a recommendation because there are far worse sins that a film can commit. Like this ending.

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originally posted: 10/22/00 10:09:49
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User Comments

3/25/18 morris campbell not bad has a nice message 4 stars
12/05/10 Steffy Don't care what everyone says, i loved everything! the movie had a really good message! 5 stars
8/12/09 the dork knight Remember kids, good people get shivved! Way to ruin your message, movie. 3 stars
2/06/09 bob horrible ending and the movie kinda dragged on and took the spotlight off the whole pay it 3 stars
10/27/08 Samantha Pruitt so freaking sad, the acting is really great! always makes me cry. 5 stars
10/14/08 Shaun Wallner This movie delivers a wonderful message. 5 stars
7/30/08 the dork knight Preachy, sugar-coated crap with a decent performance by Spacey (his last, btw) 3 stars
3/04/08 Pamela White Awesome tale of a child's courage 5 stars
5/17/07 I'm Not Ok I Sweear This movie is a sad one but i still love it!! 5 stars
3/14/07 Brittany good movie very dramatic ending that kind of ruined the movie but i still love it a lot 5 stars
2/25/07 pOisOned heArT has a greay message in it AwEsOmE 5 stars
2/23/07 Weblynx sad, and i have always remembered that way of thinking since watching it 5 stars
2/18/07 Nick Maday I loved it! Until the end, that is. The end really killed the movie for me. 2 stars
10/18/06 Dave M Awful Review. I loved it. It is sappy though! 5 stars
9/24/06 Dewi K. Utama The ending shows hope that community also has will to better the world that Trevor had 5 stars
6/12/06 Levi A Good Plot and good acting but a VERY sad ending 5 stars
5/30/06 bobenhiemer not the best of movies 2 stars
4/04/06 Amanda Hunselman I strongly advise people to take this movie seriously 4 stars
12/18/05 Chris Karr One great movie! Almost all the actors deserved Oscars as well as the end song! 5 stars
12/10/05 Michael Very sharp beginning, then it collapse on its own lack of morality. 4 stars
9/22/05 R.W. Welch Intriguing at the start, but gets pretty sudsy. 3 stars
9/19/05 Jacklyn Jade L. Lao nice,interesting 5 stars
8/31/05 Captain Craig Great concept. NO lickable characters..except maybe the kid.Bad screenplay and direction. 2 stars
8/17/05 ES Spacey is a wuss, his character actually had a terriblly done scene to make him look tough 1 stars
7/17/05 christie kind of sappy but greatacting 4 stars
5/28/05 Aneta To jest najbardziej wzruszający film jaki kiedykolwiek widziałam 5 stars
3/31/05 Nick Boyd Great acting and premise marred by a bad endingI 4 stars
3/22/05 Naka Nope. Good messege, but it ain't enough. 1 stars
3/14/05 Brendan excellent 5 stars
3/08/05 Jo Deeply touched, don't care what others say! :P 5 stars
12/01/04 Annie The movie really moved me 5 stars
9/10/04 John Aster Habig a tear fest and a reinforcer of man's good side 5 stars
5/24/04 Jorge Fernandito Reyvaldo G A good film,but the ending was fucking crazy and very retarded 3 stars
5/18/04 C Merryweather Powerful for my students - a thought provoker! 5 stars
4/21/04 Lim Wei Hong A very touching and inspirational movie, despite having a sad ending. 4 stars
3/09/04 Jaco Visser A very touching and morally correct film! Inspiring past words. 5 stars
2/23/04 hi ok 4 stars
12/24/03 Snickerdoodle Kind of sappy and the ending really sucks. 2 stars
10/24/03 Kae Very emotional, but good, HJO is a very talented child! 5 stars
9/22/03 John Bale Somewhat sanitised modern fable well enough acted out to hold interest. 4 stars
9/21/03 Sarah This fi;m moved me in a way no other has 5 stars
9/08/03 Kyle Spacey and Hunt are both great! Didn't like the way it ended though. 4 stars
8/17/03 Lorraine I love this film - it makes me believe I should be a better person 5 stars
8/13/03 It's just me Makes you think...Haley has done it again! 5 stars
8/08/03 Kristan Be patient. Stick with it. Movie like life. It's a gift. 5 stars
8/05/03 Jin way too much emotional turmoil here. intriguing though. 3 stars
7/23/03 natasha_theobald sours my stomach just to think about it 2 stars
6/11/03 BlackTerror surprisingly 5 stars
6/05/03 Demydenko Stanislav Excellent 5 stars
4/09/03 Matt Thiel The ending says "If you help people, you will die." HUH? 3 stars
4/01/03 Jack Sommersby More tolerable than expected. 3 stars
3/29/03 bOmbsz16 its okay; quite boring though... the end is weak, who immediately dies from a stab? 3 stars
1/16/03 Joe A Total Sap & Crap Fest with a realy bad "Twist" Ending 1 stars
10/29/02 Brittney Williams I loved it!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
10/07/02 TheOthersFan "I see dead people I see nice people you're my mummy" 2 stars
7/27/02 karen goldstein i liked it just for the love story line - rest of the stuff was crap esp. the ending 3 stars
7/24/02 TheChronic sweet movie, the subject matter is definitely worth while 4 stars
6/30/02 Jim OMG what was up with that ending? Helen Hunt is a hottie though. 4 stars
6/22/02 Bart Horrid ending. Ruined the film for me. 2 stars
6/07/02 stud A NICE FAMILY FILM 5 stars
2/19/02 Shotglasskid I usually don't go for the heavy drama's but I thought the performances & movie were great. 5 stars
2/16/02 Butterbean Hunt plays the blandest alcoholic single mother on film. Flick is good, Hunt was blahhh. 4 stars
2/02/02 Tzila Seewald It is so good it's make me cry! It's teach me to be good other people 5 stars
1/14/02 Flick Chick very disappointing 2 stars
1/11/02 max zhang sappy but simple; good for non-English speaking viewers with no concept of the real America 3 stars
1/08/02 sean more further spiritual thing may be better 4 stars
1/06/02 Matt Utt This movie fucking sucks ass. I would rather watch four guys butt-fuck each other 1 stars
12/04/01 Bada Bing Crosby Can't believe Spacey & Hunt got to me; I HATE THEM but not in this almost-great flick 4 stars
10/02/01 Andrew Carden Pretty Disappointing, Bad Acting. 2 stars
6/27/01 Artist Freak Flawed bu enjoyable, good performances, movies like this are too rare. End music sucked. 4 stars
6/22/01 brentley Good plot idea, but the movie could've been better. Ending sucked. 3 stars
6/09/01 Turtle This movie had a couple of continuity mix-ups, but other than that, it was great. 4 stars
5/30/01 Thatguy I see lame people.... they're talking about morals, and righteousness... I'm puking... 1 stars
5/30/01 Monday Morning OK up to the ending -- so heavy handed it ruins the whole thing. 2 stars
5/10/01 *~Danielle*Ophelia~* (formerly KyLe*BrOfLoVsKi) A jambalaya of juggernauts in a film that's essentially a jinx. 2 stars
2/28/01 Anthony The movie has a message for people with a soul. The book is even better. 4 stars
2/18/01 Tom Beatty Made me think, but too saccharine 4 stars
2/04/01 Diego Romero You know Haley´s career is already dead right? 1 stars
2/01/01 Matthew Bartley Was I supposed to laugh when he gets stabbed and dies? 2 stars
1/22/01 Peter Taylor Don't be so cynical - its a good film, and a good ideal 5 stars
12/19/00 Tim Spacey,Hunt and Osment make this a good movie that might have sucked with other actors 4 stars
12/02/00 Angela Murtagh It's about time we had agood movie these days-I would see it again-wear waterproof mascarar 5 stars
11/29/00 William Bell Terrible in every imaginable way. 1 stars
11/11/00 spork-girl as sappy goes, this movie ruled. no misrepresentation, no dissapointment 5 stars
11/10/00 James Extraordinary acted,not a good story! 3 stars
10/31/00 Philm Phreak Sucko! 2 stars
10/31/00 Paul Emmons Your review: bull's eye. Without Spacey & Osment I'd rate it much lower 4 stars
10/28/00 cretaceous All it really needed was a car chase to be truly wretched, but it came very, very close. 2 stars
10/26/00 Marc Spacey turns in another startlingly beautiful performance... 5 stars
10/26/00 annice burdeos a bit of a disappoinment.I never believed Helen Hunt as an alcholic. Osment at times seemed 3 stars
10/25/00 emma i like thinking and feeling for myself, thank you very much. stupid and manipulative 1 stars
10/25/00 Katsat Clunky, leaden, never believable, acting wasted,terrible screenplay, editing, directing 2 stars
10/24/00 Starchild Although it jumps around, this was a really good film. The Acting, I believe, will save it. 4 stars
10/24/00 Philip Mole Manipulative Hollywood Twaddle 1 stars
10/22/00 Jenny-My-Fur Spacey is a god, this movie is incredible, it just screams out OSCAR! 5 stars
10/17/00 Suzl4 A good warm movie until the end then bring on the tears. Spacey & Osment RULE!! 4 stars
10/09/00 frank the performances are good, but the overall story (and the ending) SUCK. 2 stars
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  20-Oct-2000 (PG-13)


  22-Feb-2001 (PG)

Directed by
  Mimi Leder

Written by
  Leslie Dixon

  Kevin Spacey
  Haley Joel Osment
  Helen Hunt
  Jon Bon Jovi
  Jay Mohr
  Angie Dickinson

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