I teased it last month and I am going to follow through – reminiscing all summer about movies that I thought would be nothing special and turned out to be very special made me want to revisit the alternative. How often do we go into something with outsized expectations and find that colors our opinion of the experience? (We deal with this in investing all the time. If you bought a stock at $200/share and it sits at $150/share, you are unhappy. If you bought it at $30/share, you’re ecstatic. It’s the same stock today in either case.) Maybe I should not have had great expectations going in, but I was more than a little disappointed with Pay It Forward (2000, dir. Mimi Leder).
I should have known from the trailer. “Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey. Academy Award winner Helen Hunt. Academy Award nominee Haley Joel Osment. From the director of Deep Impact.” That last sentence should have been the warning I needed, but in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I would have signed up for anything Kevin Spacey was in. So apparently, I was always going to see this schlock.
Quickly, the plot is actually not terrible. Trevor (Osment) is a conscientious 11-year-old who wants to change the world by helping three random people – noting that if everyone did that, the world would be better. His family life was not ideal as his single mom Arlene (Hunt) does what she can but works at a casino and strip club in Las Vegas. His father (Jon Bon Jovi. Yes, you read that right.) is out of the picture until halfway through the movie. He connects with a teacher named Eugene (Spacey), who is new to the school and assigns the “change the world” task to his class. Eugene was also abused as a child and has visible burns over most of his body. Excruciatingly long story short, the movement takes off, but unfortunately young Trevor is not around to see it, because he gets stabbed to death at school. That’s a pretty big spoiler, but if I saved you from seeing this, you can send the thank you cards whenever you get a chance.
I cannot oversell how much I hated this movie. When a movie insults its audience as often as this one does, I start to take it personally. The filmmakers decided that, not only did the main character need to be abused, but his teacher needed to be a burn victim, his first target to help needed to be a drug addict, his abusive father had to return, AND he needed to be STABBED TO DEATH AT THE AGE OF 11!!! If you can’t make me feel sympathy for your character without turning them into Job, then you are insulting your audience.
Of all the sins of this film (and trust me there are way more than I can get into in one document), the biggest is the ending. I have long believed that if you wow me in the end, I will forgive many sins from the first 95% of your film. In the case of Pay It Forward, they did the opposite. You see, throughout the film, there is a reporter (Jay Mohr, yeah…again I am not making up this casting) who noticed that people were being nicer to each other and eventually tracked down young Trevor and interviewed him about the movement he didn’t know he started. The interview does not air before Trevor is stabbed to death at the age of 11 while at school (have I spoiled it enough yet?), yet at his funeral, there is a line of cars like the end of Field of Dreams coming to said funeral. Please explain to me how this is possible. They literally did not even know his name until that day. And if some of those details are inaccurate, I do not even care. If you make it to the ending without choking on your own vomit, you deserve a Nobel prize.
I am now realizing that I should not have done this review, because now I am just mad at everything. Anyway, do not watch this pandering, manipulative, desperately trying to be profound piece of garbage. Watch actual garbage instead and your time will have been better spent.
FUN FACT – One of my favorite quirks of this movie’s illustrious history is one I am not even bothering to confirm because I choose to believe it’s true. The LA Times film critic, when giving a top ten and bottom ten list for the year, listed Pay It Forward in both the first and second worst films of the year spots. That is some high quality, published hatred. I can really get behind that.
Just Watch says that Pay It Forward is available for rent or digital purchase, but I am not going to tell you where. Save your money and your time.
As a reminder, here is the original post that details the scores and weighting system.