Thursday, March 8, 2012

100 Movies - No. 69: Pay It Forward

69. Pay It Forward (2000)
Drama, Romance, 123 minutes
Directed by Mimi Leder
Starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment

Pay It Forward follows two storylines. The first is introduced in the opening scene when a reporter sees a car crash into his own while it is parked. A complete stranger throws him the keys to a brand new Jaguar. The second story begins four months earlier when 11-year-old Trevor (Osment) is given a school assignment by his teacher, Mr. Simonet (Spacey).

Here's the assignment:

"Think of an idea to change our world - and put it into ACTION!"

That sounds simple enough, doesn't it? The assignment is designed to inspire the students to make some small attempt to change something within their power, but Trevor takes it literally. He finds a homeless man, takes him home, feeds him, and allows him to sleep in the garage. His alcoholic mother, Arlene (Hunt), meets the man the following morning when Trevor invites him in to use the shower. Arlene is not pleased.

People just don't take those kind of chances in the real world. The homeless man is a junkie and his arms are covered in needle marks. What if he is violent or mentally ill? But, what if he's just down on his luck and one small act of kindness could change his life? How do we know the results of our own actions? One smile or kind word at the right time could change someone's mood or make a much bigger difference.

Trevor's idea isn't that simple. He vows to help three people, but these acts of kindness have to be something big. He tries to set up Mr. Simonet with his mother and wants to prevent a friend from being bullied at school. Simonet and Arlene provide the romantic element in the movie. Simonet has burns all over his face and Arlene works two jobs and struggles to stay sober. These characters are deeply flawed, but Trevor thinks he can improve both their lives.

The second part of the idea requires the three people he helps to each do favors for three other people. He calls it paying it forward. We see some of the people who are helped and watch them try to help others. We're also shown the other story thread as the reporter follows the trail back to Trevor. Some of the revelations are quite astounding.

In a way, this idea is similar to advertising. If you help someone and ask them to help others in return, you can't be sure that they will honor your request. If they do honor it, there's no guarantee you will ever know. It could happen months or years in the future. The idea is planted like a seed, just like an advertisement. Have you ever bought something months later because of an advertisement you once saw or heard about?

It's unusual to see Spacey play such a regular guy. He's not cast as a cool criminal, an angry boss, or a rebellious employee; he's unsure of himself and a bit of a loser. Hunt doesn't exactly look glamorous either. The relationship seems authentic because these two people desperately need somebody in their lives. Angie Dickinson makes a brief appearance, but plays her role convincingly.

Some of the best ideas in history seemed simple. Couldn't pay it forward really work if we just allowed ourselves to believe? Doesn't everyone have some good in them? It's been 12 years since the movie was made and the world seems the same, so I can only assume that the idea hasn't caught on. But for two hours, why not allow yourself to believe that it's possible? Some of the stories are touching and remarkable, while others are extremely sad.

Mimi Leder tells a very human story and gives us characters who seem real. The acting is as good as you would expect from the exceptional talent on display. Another key ingredient is Thomas Newman's score, which reminds me of his work on American Beauty, also starring Spacey.

Pay It Forward is a touching emotional drama with a strong story.

If you like Pay It Forward:

Mimi Leder was responsible for Deep Impact, in which a comet threatens Earth's future. Tea Leoni, Robert Duvall and Morgan Freeman star. Like Pay It Forward, the characters seem real and the story focuses on the human element.

Helen Hunt also appeared in As Good as It Gets and entered into a relationship with a deeply-flawed man. If you enjoy her acting, it's probably her best performance of her career.

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  1. Nice review. Haven't seen this, only a few scenes while channel-surfing. I'll get to the film soon. Spacey is one of my favorites.

  2. Thanks. Spacey was my favorite actor for a long time. I don't think any of his roles after Pay It Forward were better than this. American Beauty will always be my absolute favorite Spacey role though.