Let's Make a Difference

Pay It Forward is the kind of film I approach with dread. Hollywood strikes many discordant notes, but self-satisfied celebrations of communal uplift land with an especially abrasive clang. Frame a public injustice as a mystery and let a flawed crusader clean things up--an Erin Brockovich, a Lowell Bergman, or even that violin teacher Meryl Streep played in Music of the Heart-- and I can walk away satisfied. It's the big canvas, the panoramic vision, the strained, hopeful statements about All of Us that Hollywood inevitably mucks up.

In the ads, the coming attraction, and the prefabricated Oscar buzz, Pay It Forward promised to press exactly those buttons. The film's premise could be lifted wholesale from an Oprah segment or the playbook of either George Bush. What if--oh, such dangerous words--an individual selflessly helped another? Instead of repaying the good deed, what if the person who was helped went on to do something wonderful for three other people? And each of them went on to help three more folks? Quicker than you can say advanced-placement math, we'd have something revolutionary on our hands. Right?

A subliminal message often lurks behind such exhortations to individually driven social improvement. Who needs a government safety net, the whisper goes, when regular, real, average people can make a big difference? At worst, I imagined Forrest Gump--conservative agitprop drenched in faux innocence. At best, well, I imagined Forrest Gump, too: a modern-day fable that got by on charm and (for the most part) steered clear of mawkishness. With a top-notch production team and a cast featuring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment, Pay It Forward looked to be as slick and seductively well made as Gump, Robert Zemeckis's 1994 Best Picture triumph. Osment was remarkable as the haunted boy in The Sixth Sense, and Hunt (playing his mother here) has lately cornered the market on harried single moms. With his dryly biting line deliveries, Spacey surely would cut through the schmaltz, if schmaltz was what director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Leslie Dixon insisted on peddling.

I've watched Pay It Forward now, and I cannot tell a lie: The film isn't as overblown as I expected. (Or feared.) (Or hoped.) In fact, it can barely muster the energy to be expansive at all. There's an emotionally enervated quality to the film, a surprising unwillingness to embrace the utopian sentimentality that obviously got the movie made in the first place. I chalk up some of this to the film makers' restraint, and bravo for that. But I detect a bleaker tendency at work, too. Maybe in another day and time--even back in 1994, when Forrest Gump came out--American audiences could believe in their own ability to remake the world, hand to hand or neighborhood by neighborhood. Not so anymore. In an anomic culture of Internet "communities," special-interest politics, and bowling alone, e-mail jokes, not good deeds, are what we forward today.

The idea comes from the pen of Catherine Ryan Hyde, a novelist whose manuscript was scooped up and placed on the movie fast track even before it was published. In the novel, a social studies teacher named Reuben St. Clair sets the plot in motion, suggesting to his class of 11-year-olds that they'll get extra credit if they make a small gesture to improve the world around them. The precocious Trevor McKinney won't just put up posters or embark on a recycling project, like the few other kids who don't laugh off the whole assignment. He decides to take in and feed a homeless man, urging the man to do a good turn for someone else. His other chief task is to engineer a romance between his lonely mother and his equally lonely teacher. At first it seems that both efforts fail. The stranger appears to fall back into squalor and the romance sputters. What Trevor doesn't realize is that his brainchild has caught on in significant, soul-stirring ways. The reader learns from the second sentence about a "movement that changed the world," but earnest little Trevor, for most of the narrative, thinks his good intentions have been for nothing.

While its setting is shifted from California to Las Vegas, the film follows the book's tricky narrative structure, skipping between the boy's baby steps and the widespread impact he doesn't yet realize he's had. The quest of a cynical reporter (Jay Mohr) to get to the bottom of the story knits the strands together. Mohr is saddled with the film's hokiest lines. Every few scenes, afraid of being caught in the upbeat glow, he summons back his dour journalistic composure. He calls the chain of altruists "Mother Teresa's conga line" and wisecracks, "What are you, in some kind of cult?'' But his cynicism is overshadowed by his professional ambition: to be first to explain the origins of the grass-roots social movement that's sweeping the nation.

Or not. "Sweeping" is too sweeping a word to describe what's happening--in the film version of Pay It Forward, at least. The book is very different. Both depict only a handful of good deeds and, in doing so, sketch in a wider world of social ills and their healers. Both begin with Trevor helping a homeless man. Yet by the novel's climax, Trevor's plan is recognized by President Clinton himself at a White House ceremony, and "paying it forward" is a coast-to-coast sensation. Thanks to an 11-year-old, a nation has come to realize its destiny as the land of a million do-gooders (and still counting). The film indulges in far less wish fulfillment. Here the movement has spread beyond Las Vegas, all the way to ... California, with scattered news reports that it's happening in other states as well. No sign of politicians, only an interview on tabloid TV.

Other detours from the novel also narrow Pay It Forward--oddly, for a movie that aims to choke up, and inspire, a mainstream movieplex crowd. (Hyde's Web site has links to her Pay It Forward Foundation, where you can read about school and community projects prompted by the book.) The biggest change is to the character of Reuben. In the novel, he's a black Vietnam veteran badly scarred in the war; in the film, he's Kevin Spacey. Renamed Eugene Simonet, the character is a burn victim who, we learn, was set on fire as a boy while trying to protect his mother from his abusive father. (This whopper of a dramatic revelation, which helps to cement the Spacey-Hunt romance, may be the actor's falsest screen moment to date.) The shift eliminates racial healing from the buffet of do-it-yourself social improvements. And it underscores how significantly Pay It Forward has been redrawn in the move from page to screen. The film's circle of charity is drawn tight around the small world of the family--the dysfunctional family, to be specific. Trevor helps his alcoholic mother find a good boyfriend to replace his lousy father. His mother makes peace with her own homeless mother (Angie Dickinson). She helps a petty crook, the black male that the teacher now isn't. He steps aside so a young white girl can get emergency medical attention (a smidgen of racial healing, after all). Her father hands the keys to his Jaguar to a stranded reporter, the Mohr character, who traces the chain back to its origin, making Trevor a little--but not too--famous.

Have you gotten misty yet? If not, Pay It Forward makes one more bid for your heartstrings, raising Trevor to the stature of a martyred innocent, senselessly slain before he even recognizes his legacy. Here, too, the film and the book diverge. In the novel, Trevor is killed in Washington, D.C., just after he's feted by the president. He's stabbed, believe it or not, when he tries to break up a gay-bashing. As absurdly as this reads, it does signal an inclusive vision. The film comes to a more mundane, and therefore depressing, conclusion: Trevor is killed protecting a friend from the schoolyard bullies who sneak a knife through the metal detectors that guard the entrance to their school.

This Las Vegas is a godforsaken, grubby place, sitting in the shadow of the glitz nearby. There's hardly even grass in the schoolyard. Big bucks may be pouring through the casinos, but you get the sense that it never does trickle down to the townspeople and their kids. That's the kind of larger political reality Pay It Forward won't squarely confront. Once, the camera pans through the teachers' lunchroom, where staff members grumble about school programs being cut. But in a film obsessed with the idea that charity begins--and ends--at home, you can hardly hear them at all. ยค