Play It Forward

by MATTHEW BOND, Mail on Sunday

Pay It Forward should have been a lightweight, crowd-pleasing film but, despite the presence of Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment, it fails.

And the reason it fails is that this is a movie with no self-control whatsoever. Not once, it seems, did a production executive ask the vital question: 'Do you think we've gone too far?'

This is a shame because the basic story is heart-warming and delightful. Set the deliberately impossible task of coming up with a project to 'change the world' by his charismatic new teacher Mr Simonet (Kevin Spacey), 11-year-old Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) dreams up the idea of offering three acts of special kindness to strangers. They, in turn, have to offer acts of kindness to three others...and so on.

Hence the name Pay It Forward which strikes me as rather too slick a marketing brand for an 11-year-old to come up with, but we'll let that pass. Because there is worse to come.

The problem is the embellishments. Simonet can't just be a charismatic teacher with a big vocabulary, he has to have a badly scarred face, too.

Similarly, Trevor's mother Arlene (Helen Hunt) can't just be Las Vegas trailer-trash, she has to be a single mother, holding down two jobs and fighting a serious drink problem.

To their credit, Spacey, Hunt (no doubt hoping big hair and serious under-wiring would do for her what Erin Brockovich did for Julia Roberts) and the talented Osment, just about hold the thing together. Until, in a truly cringe-worthy moment, we discover exactly how Simonet got his scars.

From that moment on, it descends into manipulative melodrama, with the express aim of making us cry before the closing credits.

Suddenly, drunken abusive parents are everywhere - sounds like someone has spent too long in therapy. And if the 'Hello, Mom' (look out for Angie Dickinson as the only baglady to wear eye-liner) and the 'Eek, Dad's back' moments don't get to you, the nonsense they have saved up for the last ten minutes certainly will. As for the final scene...ghastly, just ghastly.

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