Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Pay It Forward – What the World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love… Maybe Not

Written by Catherine Ryan Hyde and Leslie Dixon
Directed by Mimi Leder

It may be somewhat idealistic to think that one person can change the world. In today’s “greed is good” society, it’s often seen as a character weakness to demonstrate compassion and empathy for our fellow humans who might not be as fortunate as us. Those that do might not be jetting off to the Caribbean or Disney World for their vacations, preferring to look outward rather than inward for satisfaction. Quite often, these values are marginalized with quips such as “the ’60s are over.” For some of us, compassion never goes out of style.

Depending on where you fall in that regard largely influences how much you will enjoy the somewhat dark and also feel-good movie Pay It Forward.

One night journalist Chris Chandler (portrayed by Jay Mohr) is covering a police standoff. When the suspect escapes, Chris’ car gets trashed. A man appears out of nowhere, and this stranger hands Chris the keys to a Jaguar. All he tells him is to pay this act of kindness forward.

Cut to a social studies class where a new teacher, Mr. Simonet (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) tries to impress on his students how important their place in the world is. Trevor (portrayed by Haley Joel Osmet) is a new student in the school and takes the assignment to heart. His home life isn’t all that pleasant, with a mother who has issues with alcohol and an absentee father.

Meanwhile, Chris Chandler begins to question his benefactor and follow the path backward for the whole “pay it forward” phenomenon. Of course, the audience learns that the idea started with Trevor. His idea is that everyone does something good for three people – something that will be life-changing. Those three people “pay it forward” to three other people, and so on. The rest of the film fills in the facts from his social studies assignment to when he and Chris Chandler eventually meet.

Pay It Forward is not a nice movie in many ways. Trevor’s life is hard. Coping with his mother, he’s had to grow up early on and is in many ways more mature than Arlene (portrayed by Helen Hunt). He manages to endear himself to Mr. Simonet, who has had issues of his own in the past, that show them on the outside with what appears to be a severe skin condition. The revelation of what happened to him and his budding relationship with Arlene is what primarily drives the film, as well as a desire to see if Trevor’s somewhat utopian ideal is actually workable.

Trevor’s three projects are a local homeless man (portrayed by Jim Caviezel) whom he feeds and clothes, hoping it will give his life direction away from the addition that has made him homeless. The second is his mother, whom he hopes to instill in a sense of self-worth so she will steer clear of losers like his father, Ricky (portrayed by Jon Bon Jovi), and hook up with someone who treats her well, like Mr. Simonet. It would be easy to reason that his third project is Mr. Simonet, but it isn’t. Instead, Trevor decides to help a fellow student who is continually picked on by bullies. This would seem to be the simplest of the three but is actually the most difficult.

The acting is superb. I loved Helen Hunt in this role. She doesn’t evoke a tremendous amount of compassion, but that’s a good thing. It would have been easy to play the character of Arlene as a weepy, doe-eyed victim of society. Hunt doesn’t do that and has Arlene caustic and defensive. She makes bad choices and knows they are bad for her and Trevor even as she is making them, but keeps clinging to the hope that things will be different this time. Hunt doesn’t play her for sympathy and didn’t evoke any from me. It’s an unusual thing in a character like this.

Kevin Spacey does a terrific job as well. He slowly reveals things about his past that are like a poker player showing his cards one at a time once he’s been caught bluffing. He virtually carries every scene he’s in, bringing out better performances from all. In particular, his scenes with Osmet are tremendous. I could see him trying to keep a distance and not get too attached to the boy while at the same time feeling himself drawn more protectively toward the optimistic naivety of his youth.

Osmet pulls it together here, being the central figure while at the same time being the catalyst for so many of the side stories taking place. It’s another role that isn’t played for sympathy or is overly sentimental. Instead, he’s tough on the outside while this project lets his humanity shine through. Osmet doesn’t seem out of his league when he’s opposite the award-winning actors and based on this performance, I hope he continues to act now that he’s out of the “child actor” phase.

The supporting cast is excellent. Bon Jovi’s performance as the slime-ball selfish father is terrific. It showcases how Trevor has already learned more about life than Arlene has. Angie Dickinson as Arlene’s own alcoholic mother, Grace, is good as is Jim Caviezel as the bum Trevor helps. Jay Mohr gives a good but undistinguished performance as Chris Chandler.

The movie does not end on a “they lived happily ever after note”. For this and some of the rather mature themes, I wouldn’t recommend it for young children. It would be easy to think it would be fine if you didn’t preview it first. I liked it for the very reason that it had dark undertones rather than seeming like a fairy tale. The acting is excellent and the pacing kept my attention throughout. It’s not entirely optimistic as it shows how cruel humanity is to one another, but it does resonate with my desire to see more empathy and compassion in the world.


” Cast & Crew Biographies
” Commentary by Director Mimi Leder
” HBO First-Look Special
” Theatrical Trailer

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