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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Pay It Forward (2000)



Reviews and Comments

Pay It Forward has been unjustly criticized for being idealistic. Among other things, it's about a boy who comes up with an idea for making a positive change on the world: one person does something good for three people, and those three people then do something good for three more, and so on. It's a pyramid scheme of altruism. Realistically, would such a thing work? Roger Ebert said, in his review, "That's the theory behind Pay It Forward, a movie that might have been more entertaining if it didn't believe it." Why? Sure, realistically, it's doubtful such a scheme would work. There's no accountability. It's too easy to take advantage of the system. But why must we rush to disassociate ourselves with anything remotely idealistic? By resigning ourselves to only what we see as the inevitable harshness of reality, we close the door on those slim chances for some idealistic idea to actually work. What kind of a cynical age do we live in, in which we dare not even fantasize about the world being a better place?

Pay It Forward is a fantasy. What if such a scheme worked? I liked the narrative structure of the film: it jumps back and forth between a reporter, trying to find out why a chain of people he's stumbled upon have done such great favors for each other, and the story of a seventh grader (Haley Joel Osment), his recovering alcoholic mother (Helen Hunt), and his social studies teacher (Kevin Spacey). In spite of the movie's idealism, it absolutely does not stray from showing the harshness and injustice of reality. It would be a fatal misstep if it did. In a world without great suffering, what use would the "pay it forward" scheme be in the first place?

I honestly haven't decided, though, whether the film's conclusion is a fatal misstep or not. It's manipulative and soapy, and yet certainly moved me. It may not move others, and those it does not touch it will surely alienate. I'm not sure what the movie is trying to say by it, either. And maybe that's ok. Perhaps a movie that would presume to know all the answers would be overly presumptious indeed. Maybe that's why the film's manipulation didn't bother me as much as it might have: manipulation isn't nearly so repulsive as when it is employed in the service of a transparent social or political agenda.

I recommend the film for the spectacular performances by the cast and the interesting balance it strikes between acknowledgement of reality and daring to put hope in an ideal. As for the ending, if nothing else, it's good food for thought, and that's never a bad thing.