Somewhere along its circuitous route, "Pay It Forward" takes a wrong step and never recovers.
Such stumbling is understandable; rarely has a mainstream Hollywood movie been so top-heavy with domestic strife. The film is directed by Mimi Leder, previously the director-cum-traffic-cop of "The Peacemaker" and "Deep Impact." As if celebrating the fact that she's now directing a personal drama, Leder orchestrates the film's Big Dramatic Moments far too heavy-handedly. Right up to its candlelit coda, "Pay It Forward" is the year's most manipulative movie.
The film benefits from the work of such master manipulators as Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment. But "work" is the operative word. The acting could never be called "effortless."
Hunt delivers the strongest performance, playing a hard-edged version of her Oscar-winning "As Good As It Gets" role. She's a struggling single mother, Arlene, who handles two jobs in Las Vegas lounges, not exactly an ideal environment for fighting her alcoholism.
She tries hard to be a good mom to her soulful, serious son Trevor (young Osment of "The Sixth Sense"). But Trevor's most positive influence comes from his seventh-grade social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Spacey). Eugene's face is covered with burn scars, but his spirit remains unravaged. He assigns his class to come up with an idea that will improve the human condition.
Trevor gives birth to the pay-it-forward idea. The rules: You must offer help to a person who is unable to help himself, with the provision that the recipient commit three similar random acts of kindness. Pay-it-forward grows into a national phenomenon, which is more than the movie itself can hope for, and various participants try to take credit for it.
Meanwhile, Trevor attempts to unite his mother and his teacher in a romance. After much deliberation, Arlene and Eugene decide to give it a try, but their union is severely tested by horrendous past experiences. Eugene is scarred emotionally as well as physically, and Trevor's abusive father (Jon Bon Jovi) tries to insinuate himself back into Arlene's good graces. Eventually, an unexpected tragedy brings all the loose ends together, but the tragedy seems so fabricated, it will leave much of the audience irritated rather than mournful.
Several individual scenes, including an honest attempt by Eugene and Arlene to dissolve their defenses, indicate that Leder has a knack for intimacy. Disappointing though "Pay It Forward" may be, it still suggests that she is a director worth watching in the future.
Hunt's tight, economic performance captures Arlene's gritty strength and despair. The touch of smugness that served Spacey so well in both "American Beauty" and "The Usual Suspects" is effectively used here in the name of pedantry; still, his performance seems a mite self-aware.
As before, Osment is the epitome of youthful valor and ingenuity. Only once, when eavesdropping on Spacey and Hunt's first date, does he resort to child-actor cuteness. As the villainous ex, Bon Jovi is so reptilian, he invites audience derision from his first appearance.
Audiences are hungry for films with emotional impact, and "Pay It Forward's" shameless manipulation may earn it a following. But hard-shell cynics have the better case.