At the helm of "Pay It Forward," director Mimi Leder becomes such a manipulatively mawkish emotional puppeteer that it feels as if she's tossing tear gas grenades into the audience.
Adapted from Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel about emotional and physical scars, symbolic martyrdom and saving the world with deliberate acts of compassion, it's a story that would be difficult to tell without pulling a few heartstring. But ye-owch! Does she have to yank so hard?
The peerless Kevin Spacey stars as Eugene Simonet, a bottled-up, austere junior high social studies teacher with burn scars over much of his body and face. He opens every school year by offering extra credit to any student who can "think of an idea to change our world and put it into action."
It's mostly a motivational device, but 11-year-old Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) takes it to heart. He divines a cascading system of good deeds that requires any recipient to "pay it forward" --- to do a similar kindness for three other people -- and tests it out by bringing home a strung-out vagrant (Jim Caviezel, "Frequency") for a free shower, some Pepsi and a bowl of Cap'n Crunch.
This doesn't sit well with Trevor's hard-working, recovering-drunk single mom, played by Helen Hunt as a peroxide blonde with a trailer trash wardrobe and a broken-down pickup full of emotional baggage. But Mr. Simonet understands the boy's intentions and encourages him because "pay it forward" is the first idea he's ever heard from this perennial assignment that he thinks has a chance of truly doing good.
For an encore benevolence, Trevor then attempts to fix his teacher up with his mom. Both of them could use a little earnest tenderness and romance, but the kid has an ulterior motive: He's looking for a surrogate father to stand up to his absentee dad (Jon Bon Jovi), who he knows will come return before long to start anew an escalating cycle of apologies and abuse.
Quickly -- almost mysteriously -- Trevor's inspirational notion begins to spread, and parts of the film follow Jay Mohr ("Go," "Jerry Maguire") as a down-on-his-luck magazine reporter trying to track the "pay it forward" phenomenon from as far away as Los Angeles back to its source. Meanwhile, strangers prevent suicides, estranged families are reunited and a subtle, corporeal optimism washes over those who pay it forward.
This is a touching story, and with the kinds of profoundly human performances given by powerhouse actors Spacey, Hunt and Osment, the film will have at least some emotional impact on anyone without a heart of stone. But director Leder ("Deep Impact," "The Peacemaker") does a lousy job of hiding the puppet strings with which she jerks the audience around, relying heavily on, for instance, philosophical kiddie rhetoric spoken by Osment but clearly written by an adult angling for maximum, spoon-fed poignancy.
Probably due to time concerns, "Pay It Forward" skims over several significant character-establishing details, leaving the film with a hollow, artificial air about it (accentuated by some very unnatural, sound-stagy sets).
Even with a number of classroom scenes, never once does Mr. Simonet actually talk about social studies. The fact that the teacher lives a meticulously ordered life is only alluded to even though it plays a part in his hesitant relationship with Trevor's mom. And there is very little implication that he's violating parent-teacher ethics by dating her.
How Trevor conceived the pay it forward plan is something else that goes almost entirely unexplored and there's a lack of credibility in the way some of the characters participate. In fact, the definitive principles that give the plan its power are never clearly laid out at any point in the course of the picture.
This kind of minutiae is often lost in the translation of a book to film, but in this Hollywoodization, the hopeful spirit of Hyde's novel seems to be the most overwhelming -- and overbearing -- element that survived. Despite strong, veritable performances, the film feels too pandering and contrived (especially the heartbreaking finale) to have much credibility.