Besides, by the time we reach the film's romantic ground zero, when a reluctant Kevin Spacey finally pulls out his Peacemaker to give Helen Hunt a little Deep Impact, Leder has reined us in with her blitzkrieg of benevolence. Resistance is futile.
But that's leaping ahead a bit. Set in the viper's nest of Vegas, where strip bars flash with unlikely production values, and cuddly homeless folks munch Dumpster yummies like friendly apes, Pay It Forward introduces us to Eugene Simonet (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. Because of some deep, inexplicable spiritual longing, 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 (Hunt), works two jobs (by day a casino change girl, by night a strip club waitress) and has no time for peculiar surprises. 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, the unlikely lovers get off on a terribly wrong foot, with Eugene praising Trevor's exegesis, and Arlene feeling subjugated by the teacher's superior vocabulary. Enraged at Eugene's seeming smugness, she attacks his pet project.
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 -- has lost no one's interest, and even gained momentum across the country. While Trevor's classmates initiate some truly inventive schemes (one 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 the nation is casually dismissed as "a shithole," and in which bad kids (who sneak thuddingly foreshadowed 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) offers a symbolic cross section of contemporary Americana that grows more plausible as the movie simultaneously alarms and soothes our paranoid brain cells. For instance, convinced that his altruistic (yet selfish) attempt to unite his teacher and his mother has failed, little Trevor decides to run away. With an understanding only another fatherless boy could muster, Eugene takes Arlene straight to the bus station, where he not only locates the child, but -- with a shocking display of vehemence bordering on exorcism -- savagely defends him from a child molester. The movie's sappy spoon-feeding grows tedious at times, but the show of warts is commendable and provides nearly ample balance.
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 as Trevor's deranged father in a wife-beater shirt, 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 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, a welcome adjustment from the whirling cameras and effects of Leder's first two outings. 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.
Now, with regard to the kid. Yes, as his work in The Sixth Sense attests, Osment is a superb young actor, capable of holding his own in extreme close-up. The problem here is that this character doesn't allow him to stretch very far from the role that made him famous. Adoring pro wrestling and asking smart questions of his elders, he's a perfect preadolescent, but the script doesn't give him adequate room to breathe. Besides -- despite the ethereal New Age strokes Dixon uses to paint him -- he's just way too young to be waxing messianic.
Pay It Forward will be prompting a lot of 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 its copious returns.) To escape the reprogramming, ask yourself this question: If someone gives you a ration of shit, should you also pay that forward?