Pay it BACK
Random acts of cinematic stupidity
By Jim Ridley

Pay it Forward is a sanctimonious load of sap that plays like a two-hour Oscar reel of Special Moments. Kevin Spacey plays a disfigured teacher who gives his students the vague assignment to do something that will make the world a better place. This inspires his pupil Haley Joel Osment to devise a plan called "pay it forward"- He'll perform a major, life-changing favor for three people, on the condition that each person must do the same for three more people.

So far, so good - but Osment decides one of his favors will be fixing up his teacher with his mom, alcoholic barmaid Helen Hunt. This is the kind of movie that conveys the heroine's nobility by having her touch the hero's scars, even though the shameless script uses them as a mystery to tantalize the audience; this is also the kind of movie in which bad makeup and tacky clothes equal poverty.

And when you think it can't get worse, there's an appalling tearjerker ending capped by a finale that's a candlelit enshrinement of weepy lip service: The movie would rather go out with a grandiose finish than show the idea actually working in small, life-changing steps. It's like a symphony composed of false notes.

If I sound pissed off, I am. Movies like this encourage the worst kind of self-congratulatory piety - the kind that lets people feel both holier-than-thou and complacent, an insurmountable barrier to the actual practice of charity.

Start bracing yourself for the avalanche of hosannas. Spacey is always watchable, even when his character is made to look prissy for comic or tragic effect; but Hunt almost duplicates her performance from As Good As It Gets with vastly diminished returns, and Osment's hushed line readings sound rehashed from The Sixth Sense. (Even the estimable film composer Thomas Newman warms over his American Beauty score.)

The screenplay is credited to Leslie Dixon; Mimi Leder (who got her start in television) directed.

Other performances include James Caviezel, Jon Bon Jovi, Jay Mohr, David Ramsay, and Angie Dickinson.

At least you get to hear Steve Earle on the soundtrack.