The very idea behind Pay It Forward -- that when someone does an enormous good deed for you should pay it "forward" to three other, unsuspecting persons -- requires what is described in the film as "an extreme act of faith in the goodness of people."
It's safe to say that your enjoyment of the film is bound by this same rule. Dyed-in-the-wool film critics like myself have been down this road once or twice before, and the enormous leap of faith it takes to convince oneself that, deep down, even "bad" people are good makes me want to reach for my DVD of A Clockwork Orange.
In a nutshell, Pay It Forward essentially gives us a new spin on the age-old pyramid scheme, this time with an altruistic streak. The brainchild of young Trevor McKinney (The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment), the PIF scheme is hatched when his 7th grade Social Studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) challenges the class to come up with a plan "to change the world." While it might have been a good idea to start by trying to fix up his alcoholic, working-two-jobs, not-quite-a-hussie-but-almost mom (Helen Hunt), Trevor figures he really can change the world with his plan.
Trevor launches Pay It Forward with gusto, helping out a homeless junkie (James Cavaziel), some kid who keeps getting beat up at school, and even branching into matchmaking as he tries to set up the burn-scarred and embittered Mr. Simonet with Trevor's trollop of a mother.
It's at this point that we begin to wonder: Is Pay It Forward meant to be a love story? Well, no. Actually, it's a full-blown soap opera, complete with rank alcoholism, spousal and child abuse, drug addiction, suicide, homelessness, and everything else you get in the genre except a murderous evil twin. As you might expect, the picture is positively drowning in sentiment, to the point where it gets almost sickening.
The real driver for all this mushiness is that the film is extremely talky and, for lack of a better word, preachy. Moments of greatness are punctuated by one soliloquy after another. Sadly, this is a truly excellent story that is told with exceptionally poor ability. Set in Vegas, Pay It Forward could easily have had the power of a film like its brother-in-setting, Leaving Las Vegas, which utilized the harsh dichotomy between bright, glitzy lights and the baseness of the human condition perpetually on display there to drive its message home. But it doesn't. Pay It Forward takes the PG-13 way out and muddles itself as a film for the entire family to watch, to bond over, and to learn a thing or two about life.
To its credit, we do learn that thing or two about life from the strong moral backbone of Pay It Forward, notably the importance of taking action instead of just talking about doing something good. As a message movie, the film is competent, and indeed it probably will play well to teen audiences if they can sit through all the blah-blah-blah chattiness. But really, is it the best idea to give us the one-two acting punch of both Jon Bon Jovi and Angie Dickenson to drive the point home? Even Spacey and Hunt feel like they're trying karmically to redeem themselves for the misanthropy on display in (the far superior) American Beauty and As Good As It Gets. (For which, of course, each won an Academy Award, respectively.)
Ultimately, Pay It Forward will be 2000's take on Forrest Gump. Like Gump, Forward is utterly manipulative, a feel-so-good-you-have-to-cry movie that will divide audiences into two camps: one that is swept away by the earnestness and emotion of the story, and one that simply can't stand the sappiness.
For what it's worth, I managed to fall prey to neither side.
Be ready to pay.