Apt pupil

Altruism isn't what it used to be.

IF PRINCESS DI was your idea of a living saint, whose too-brief life touched us all with its munificence and wisdom, Pay It Forward is the movie for you. However, unsuspecting audiences will initially flock to the flick for its overt feel-good, do-good message. After all, who isn't eager to see what's behind the Oscar clout of the high-profile cast?

PAY IT FORWARD

directed by Mimi Leder with Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, and Jay Mohr opens October 20 at Majestic Bay, Metro, Oak Tree, and others

Forward pulls us briskly forward as we meet shy 11-year-old Trevor (Haley Joel Osment, an Oscar nominee for The Sixth Sense). He's a latchkey kid to his hardworking but alcoholic mother Arlene (Helen Hunt, Oscar for As Good As It Gets). Somewhat neglected in his blue-collar, single-parent Las Vegas home, he finds better supervision at school from his dorky, disfigured new teacher Eugene (Kevin Spacey, Oscars for The Usual Suspects and American Beauty).

That's a lot of acting talent, which raises expectations for Forward that are just as quickly dashed by its TV-familiar sensibilities. "Think of an idea to change our world and put it into action," the teacher writes on his blackboard, and his best student eagerly embraces this assignment with unexpected results. While Mom's working two jobs, Trevor invites home and feeds a pathetic junkie (The Thin Red Line's Jim Caviezel). Where will his good turn lead? Inspired by this act of human kindness, will this derelict be magically transformed? Not exactly. Forward at least acknowledges that such Samaritanship doesn't exclude human weakness and failure.

In Forward's second storyline, our skepticism about Trevor's scheme is baldly represented by a Los Angeles reporter investigating the mysterious outbreak of civility in his jaded metropolis. As this journalist, Jay Mohr of SNL and Jerry Maguire too infrequently displays his cynical smirk from Fox's scabrous, cancelled Action. (You'd rather see him and Spacey battle it out together in the classic Hollywood pessimist-optimist buddy film formulation perfected by Billy Wilder). Mainly, however, Mohr's presence allows Deep Impact director Mimi Leder to conveniently sidestep the main plot's weaknesses when needed—which is pretty often.

THE SOURCE NOVEL by Catherine Ryan Hyde probably accounts for Forward's schematic moralizing and characterization. Published earlier this year, it bluntly appeals to our guilt about our selfish, insular, SUV-driving society. (Call it aspirational altruism.) But reading a book as a sap to one's conscience hardly seems the embodiment of Christian fellowship—or of any other faith worth having.

Forward blankets its religiosity and chain-letter approach to virtue with a halting romance between Arlene and Eugene, with Trevor as matchmaker. Leder treats these cloying scenes with the practiced, seriocomic tone honed on E.R. Hunt and Spacey each deliver a few big speeches, but their skills can't flesh out the stereotypes: Fallen Woman and Quiet Man With a Secret. Hunt allows herself to be photographed with truly awful hair and blue eye shadow, while Spacey's house of horrors makeup likewise signals his inner goodness. "I'm grading you on the effort, not the result," Eugene tells Trevor, by which standard Forward overgenerously awards itself an A for earnestness; by ours, results matter, and the film merits a C.

So why was the schmaltzy, mediocre Forward made? It offers bogus inspirational uplift for the price of a movie ticket. It lets you care and cry in a self-congratulatory way, without lifting your ass out of the comfy multiplex seat. It relies on the most hackneyed television tropes of abuse and victimization—always the key!--in the service of what's finally a very familiar and suspect old bargain. "Pay it forward," the kid says, meaning that selflessness is supposed to be its own reward, like some zero-sum game. But the moral equation of Forward doesn't add up; there's still something abhorrent and bloody to the Biblical notion that salvation ultimately requires the ultimate sacrifice.

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