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Friday, October 20, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie's good intentions don't `Pay'

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review

XX 1/2 "Pay It Forward," with Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, Angie Dickinson. Directed by Mimi Leder, from a screenplay by Leslie Dixon, based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. 120 minutes. Several theaters. "PG-13" - Parental guidance advised for brief violence and brief sexual situations.

I'll give it this: "Pay It Forward" aims high. You get the feeling the filmmakers not only wanted to make a good movie but change the world for the better. They wound up doing neither - although, to be fair, the latter possibility is still open.

It begins well. Haley Joel Osment, who could see dead people in "The Sixth Sense," plays Trevor, a short, skinny kid in a white-trash, hip-hop world. On the first day of school, he goes through metal detectors and witnesses the meanness of bullies, but there's a fierce intelligence in his small, scrunched face.

When he meets his social-studies teacher, Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey), one is reminded of great cinematic teaching moments. The kids in the class are clowning around, but as soon as Spacey speaks he has their attention - and ours. He chides a student for tardiness. He makes them think of the larger world.

Then he gives them a yearlong extra-credit assignment: "Think of an idea to change the world - and put it into action."

Most of the kids come up with conventional or ridiculous ideas, but Trevor proposes "Pay it forward": You help three people in a big way, in a way they cannot help themselves. They, in turn, cannot pay you back; they have to "pay it forward" - i.e., help three other people in a big way. And on and on. It's like a chain letter of goodness.

The three people Trevor aims to help are a drug-addicted homeless man, his mother Arlene (played by Helen Hunt), and Mr. Simonet.

Arlene is an alcoholic waitress, always involved with the wrong man. Mr. Simonet is a lonely, sometimes-bitter burn victim, with crusty pink scars licking the bottom half of his face. So Trevor kills two birds with one stone by engaging in that childhood fantasy of fixing up his teacher with his (single) parent.

Unfortunately, this romance is interminable. When she's ready, he isn't. When he's ready, her ex-husband returns. We wait, tapping our feet, for the inevitable.

A competing story line, taking place four months from the first day of school, focuses on Jay Mohr (Tom Cruise's competition in "Jerry Maguire") as an investigative reporter. One night he unexpectedly receives the largesse of a high-priced litigator, and, after learning of "Pay it forward," he's determined to track down its origins.

Now I have no problem with "Pay it forward" as a concept, even though it requires, as Mr. Simonet says, "an extreme act of faith in the goodness of people." I just didn't believe the way writer Leslie Dixon and director Mimi Leder executed the concept.

The high-priced litigator, for example, is helped in the following way. He is at a hospital with his asthmatic daughter who is nearly suffocating; she needs air. Yet this high-priced litigator cannot convince a nurse to pay attention to his daughter. Instead, a jivey black man with a gunshot wound, a previous recipient of "Pay it forward," steps forward and argues for him - in the manner of angry, jivey, Hollywood black men.

Excuse me? How did this litigator become so high priced if he can't even argue his own case? And if he is high priced, shouldn't he be able to afford better medical care?

This doesn't take anything away from Haley Joel Osment, who is believable as both a near-saintly figure and an ordinary kid who gets off on the choke-slams of professional wrestling. But I never bought Helen Hunt as an alcoholic waitress: She's too Helen Hunt for that. Spacey's character, meanwhile, after a snap-to-attention intro, turns to mush during the love story. His intelligence gets overshadowed by Trevor's. The movie turns into a "Kid Knows Best" feature.

"Pay It Forward" pushes many of the right buttons. Hard-hearted critic that I am, I even found tears welling up near the end. But it's dishonest in its execution, and a tad dull after a promising beginning.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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