By the time October rolls around, major studios begin
to release dramatic movies with deep themes in the hopes of
attracting critical attention to jump-start Academy Award buzz.
Every year, there are any number of fine films released in the fall
that can be put in this category. Then, there are the ones that
shamelessly pull out all the stops, the formulaic motion pictures,
sometimes adapted from best-selling books, whose every scene is
staged in a manner that should have "For Your Consideration"
subtitles. This year, Warner Bros. has bestowed on moviegoers
Pay It Forward, a treacly, good-natured adaptation of Catherine
Ryan Hyde's novel that stars Oscar-winners Kevin Spacey and Helen
Hunt and features Oscar nominee Haley Joel Osment. If only the
film had lived up to its hype but instead it is just pap
masquerading as great art.

     The film's premise immediately places it in the feel-good hall
of fame, right up there alongside
Forrest Gump and Good Will
. As a social studies class assignment, young Trevor
McKinney (Osment) hits on the bold plan of helping three people in
some major way. Those three people in turn will then "pay it
forward" by aiding three more, and so on and so on. Basically, the
kid has come up with a pyramid scheme designed to make the
world a better place and promote Rodney King's request of  "can't
we all just get along." This may be a laudable premise for the story
but something about it rings false. Still, the kid tries to implement
his theory by assisting a homeless drug addict (James Caviezel),
his teacher (Spacey) who bears the burn scars that obviously came
from a terrible accident but whom Trevor nevertheless tries
to match up with his alcoholic mother (Helen Hunt), and a fellow
student (Marc Donato), who is the target of bullies. In each case,
Trevor thinks he's failed, yet unbeknownst to him his idea has  
been put into practice. When a reporter in L.A. (Jay Mohr) is the
beneficiary of a stranger's kindness, he smells a good story.

     Director Mimi Leder honed her skills handling the superior soap
opera of NBC's
ER before segueing to the big screen at the helm of
action movies (
The Peacemaker, Deep Impact). With Pay It
, she returns to her roots and milks every sentimental
drop she can from Leslie Dixon's script. She gives her actors free
rein to make their roles as Oscar-worthy as possible and Spacey
and Hunt rise to that level. The problem is, each seems to be in a
different movie. In spite of the plot which has them attracted to
one another, the stars have absolutely zero chemistry. Spacey does
try to make something interesting of his character but when he
recounts how he came to be disfigured, he shamelessly mugs, as if
begging those Academy members to sit up and take notice.

     For her part, Hunt dyed her hair platinum and often wore kohl
eye makeup that made her look more like a raccoon than a boozy
waitress. When her character goes in search of that hidden bottle,
every cliche possible is trotted out, and not for one instant is she
believable as an alcoholic. Hunt won her Oscar for a similar role as
a single mother who worked as a waitress in
As Good As It Gets
and she is just as unconvincing in this film.

     The prodigious talents of the supporting cast, including James
Caviezel (as a polite junkie), Angie Dickinson (as a drunken bag
lady), Jon Bon Jovi (miscast as Hunt's loutish, abusive ex-husband),
and Jay Mohr (who is stymied by the underwritten role of the  
reporter) are completely wasted in thankless roles. In fact, the only
performer to emerge with any dignity is Haley Joel Osment. This
gifted young actor has already proven he can rise above lousy
material (anyone remember
Bogus?). When given a meaty role, he
can be equal to the adult actors as his stellar work in
The Sixth
illustrated. In Pay It Forward, he works hard to create a real
character but unlike his award-winning co-stars one doesn't see him
working. Osment merely is Trevor, and that rare talent will
undoubtedly help him in future roles.

     There are several twists in the plot and a major surprise ending
designed to tug at the heartstrings and tear ducts, but unlike some
critics I will refrain from spoilers. (As punishment for those who  did
reveal the ending, they should be locked in a room where this
movie is played perpetually.) There will be those who buy into the
generosity of spirit that
Pay It Forward purports
to preach, and good for them if they do. Those who dislike being
manipulated may wish to skip this film. I know I sure wish I had.