||Take one part "Amazing Grace and Chuck," lopping off the sports context and the political stuff, add a large measure of "The Man Without a Face," and toss in a substantial dollop of "Sleepless in Seattle," and you'll have something like Mimi Leder's remarkably sappy filmization of Catherine Ryan Hyde's book. "Pay It Forward" is about an eleven-year old boy who, in response to his facially-scarred teacher's assignment to come up with an idea to change the world for the better, devises a system to do kind deeds for others and then expect the recipients to do likewise for three others under the same conditions, and so on (a sort of pyramid scheme of goodness, you might say). At the same time the tyke attempts to link the teacher romantically with his mom, a hard-working but boozy type who's always inclined to take back her currently-absent but inevitably resurfacing bum of a husband. As we watch the ever-expanding ramifications of the youth's kindness program through the eyes of an investigative reporter, as well as the progress of the relationship between his mom and teacher, we're supposed to experience alternating spasms of joy and sentimental tears in equal measure. But in fact all the picture does to do move from treacle to banality and back again repeatedly, before descending into one-hundred proof bathos during the final twenty minutes. If you're a sucker for this sort of sentimental shlock, you might find yourself sniffling at the close along with most of the audience, but you'll certainly exit the auditorium knowing you've been had.
The problem with "Pay It Forward" certainly isn't its cast, which is formidable indeed. But by and large the leads aren't very well used. The best is Haley Joel Osment, who follows up his astonishing performance in "The Sixth Sense" with a likably waifish turn as Trevor, the intense boy with multiple plans at work. He handles the transitions from wide-eyed jubilation to sad-faced discontent with amazing ease for one so young, but even his endearingly chipmunkish visage can't overcome the mawkishness of the narrative twists. Kevin Spacey, playing the disfigured but dedicated teacher, is easily one of the very best actors working today, but impersonating a subdued and self-doubting guy isn't really his forte; the requirement to enunciate flawlessly is something with which he has no difficulty, but the watery-eyed, ever-so-sympathetic routine he has to undertake seems false at virtually every turn. As Trevor's long-suffering mom Arlene, Helen Hunt does a Plain Jane, Erin Brockovich sort of act, which permits her on the one hand to show her gams and wear a purple wig in a bar scene and on the other to don dumpy clothing and a grotesquely unbecoming hairdo as she weeps and apologizes for her personal defects, makes a fool of herself over men, and occasionally hits the bottle. Jon Bon Jovi shows up briefly as her n'er-do-well spouse, encased in jeans so tight that they look about to explode at any moment; James Caviezel appears sporadically as a drug addict who's one of Trevor's first subjects; and Angie Dickinson, heavily doused with makeup, pops in toward the end as Arlene's blowsy, alcoholic mom, whose incongruously accidental involvement in the "pay it forward" scheme brings reporter Jay Mohr (whose cynical rants seem dragged in from another movie) face-to-face with the scheme's inventor before a cruelly sloshy denouement (which is crudely prefigured in a scene near the beginning involving a school metal-detector--hint, hint).
All of the above-named are able performers, but under Leder's hamfisted direction, they're badly used to one extent or another. (Leder, unhappily, shows the same degree of subtlety in this genre that she earlier brought to the overwrought actioners "The Peacemaker" and "Deep Impact.") The chronological and topographical shifts in the script are a problem, too: we're constantly being thrust back and forth in time, and the various plot strands aren't successfully meshed by the strategem of following the reporter's investigation of events (a late sequence featuring Caviezel, for instance, is just cavalierly tossed in, interrupting the plot flow and dissipating any emotion that might be building). Nor are matters helped by a phonily uplifting score featuring the New Agey sounds of tubular chimes and synthesizer keyboards.
"Pay It Forward" is one of those saccharine movies that are frequently described in reverential tones as "special." But all that word means in such a case is that, despite a ton of good intentions, the picture is numbingly obvious and crushingly sentimental. In the present instance the cast makes it a trifle more tolerable than others of its ilk, but by the time they're bawling away at the finale, it's abundantly clear that even they can't rescue a weeply wallow like this from its overwhelming sense of self-importance and its propensity for overripe manipulation.