Pay It Forward

Directed by Mimi Leder
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, James Caviezel, Jon Bon Jovi, Angie Dickinson.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements including substance abuse/recovery, some sexual situations, language and brief violence.

Review by Matt Heffernan <>
October 24, 2000

The fall season has certainly arrived in the film industry, and all the studios are starting to put out their Oscar hopefuls. Warner Bros. is hoping for their newest film, with a trifecta of Academy darlings, to make an impression. It has a good, though-provoking message. So did The Cider House Rules, but that film couldn't live up to its message. However, that didn't stop the Academy from showering it with nominations and two major wins. Pay It Forward also falls a little short, but will that be looked over?

Haley Joel Osment follows up his acclaimed role in The Sixth Sense with another portrayal of an extraordinary boy. Trevor McKinney's very first class in seventh grade is Social Studies, with Mr. Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), who immediately gives his students a bold challenge. Their assignment for the term is to come up with an idea that could change the world for the better.

Trevor takes the project quite seriously, and proposes a unique idea. He calls it "Pay It Forward": he will do big favors for three people, but instead of having them pay him back, he will instruct them to pay it forward, each doing favors for three other people. The chain extends exponentially, from three to nine to twenty-seven, and so on until world harmony is achieved. He starts by inviting a homeless man (James Caviezel) into his house, which prompts his mother (Helen Hunt) to confront Mr. Simonet. Trevor tries to do his next favor for his teacher, by subsequently trying to set him up with his mother.

This story is told in two different continua: one starting when Trevor conceives "Pay It Forward", the other starting four months later when the movement has reached Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr), a reporter who tries to follow the chain of favors to the source. Going back and forth between these storylines is an interesting method, and director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) makes a bold choice in using it.

Bold idea, bold choices, but what else? Falseness. As the film progresses, the cracks start to show, and the story is undermined by false emotion. Spacey and Hunt are too detached, and their relationship and emotional episodes aren't believable. The ending, which is also quite bold and unexpected, is unfortunately drawn out and sentimental, with a final shot that would have been embarrassing in 1940. Today, it's unforgivable.

Yet, I am still giving this film a positive rating, because when it's good, it's so very good. It tries to be both jarring and uplifting, which is not quite possible. The film should be valued for proving this point alone. And who knows? Maybe the Academy will fall for this one as well.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Pay It Forward (2000)

Here's some merchandise for sale at
Pay It Forward (2000) -- VHS
Pay It Forward (2000) -- DVD
Pay It Forward, a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde -- Hardcover
Pay It Forward, a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde -- Paperback
Pay It Forward, a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde -- Audio Cassette (read by William Dufris)
Pay It Forward: Soundtrack -- Compact Disc Home
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan