Pay it Forward

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The end of “Pay it Forward” will make you cry. This is the movie’s primary goal; it even leaves some things underdeveloped throughout the film in its haste to make sure the hankies come out in the last five minutes. How you’ll feel about the crying all depends on how you feel about being manipulated.

Of course, in the purest sense of the word, manipulation is what movies are all about. Their goal is to draw you into the world they create, for you to believe in the characters, and for you to be affected therefore — whether it be to laughter, to tears, or to inner reflection — by what’s going on. In this sense, manipulation is not a bad thing.

But usually, when something is described as being “manipulative,” the connotation is that it’s unfair or sneaky, that’s it wresting emotions from you that it does not deserve. Building up a story with engaging characters that you care about and then having one of them fall ill is legitimate storytelling; throwing some people up on the screen and then arbitrarily afflicting one with cancer just to make you cry is manipulation.

“Pay it Forward” manipulates — but again, only in the last several minutes. Up to that point, it’s a glossy, well-acted story that is at least interesting, though it never quite plumbs the philosophical depths it wants to. It’s like the feel-good Cliff’s Notes version of “Utopia.”

Kevin Spacey plays Eugene Simonet, a Las Vegas junior high school teacher who each year challenges his students to think of a way to make the world a better place, and then try to implement it. He never expects anyone to actually change the world; he merely wants them to think outside their comfort zones.

One of his students, Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osmoent), takes the assignment to heart and gives a homeless man some food and a place to stay the night. From this he develops an idea: What if you did a favor for three strangers, something that truly helped them that they couldn’t do themselves? And what if after you did it, you told each person that they now had to do favors for three more strangers, who would each have to do something for three more strangers, and so on and so forth — a “Mother Teresa conga line,” as someone puts it.

One of Trevor’s three targets is Mr. Simonet himself, a mousy man whose face is badly scarred. Trevor wants him to hook up with his mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt), who is working two jobs and occasionally drinking herself stupid, and who desperately needs someone to rescue her.

Simonet needs to be rescued, too, though that fact is more hinted at than demonstrated. The press notes say that Simonet is a meticulous man who keeps every aspect of his life neatly in order — “every shirt, every pencil, every person in its proper place,” they say. Thing is, the movie doesn’t really show this. We get the idea that he lives alone and keeps to himself, but that’s it.

Another underdeveloped theme is that the reason Trevor takes the assignment so seriously is that his own life is screwed up and he needs to find hope. Again, this is hinted at, but not fleshed out. It’s plain that his relationship with Mom is imperfect, but there’s no apparent connection between that and his sudden altruism simply because Simonet suggested it in class one day.

Helen Hunt is an able actress, but I never quite believed her as the hard-drinking, promiscuous trailer trash she’s supposed to be in this film. She’s too Helen Hunt-y and respectable to pull it off.

Spacey and Osment, though, are fantastic. We already knew Spacey was a brilliant actor, and he thoroughly BECOMES Mr. Simonet the way he usually assimilates himself into whomever he’s playing. Osment has only had one other major role, though — his Oscar-deserving turn in the now-legendary “Sixth Sense” — and there was some question as to whether that was just a one-time fluke. The apparent answer is no, it wasn’t. Though his character in “Pay it Forward” is not as legitimately tragic as it was in “Sixth Sense,” he is still eminently sympathetic, playing another soulful role with his soulful eyes and honest-to-goodness acting ability.

Director Mimi Leder relies on the fact that we all want to believe that one person can change the world. I don’t know that the film is ever completely sincere about this; it has a certain surface-level sheen to it that keeps you from trusting it entirely.

So as I cursed the film for making me cry when it had no right to, I was also grateful for having been manipulated by two of my favorite actors. Spacey and Osment can wrench a few tears out of me anytime they want. Being led by the nose was never so pleasant.

B (; PG-13, discreet sexuality, fairly frequent profanity, some mild violence.)

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