Pay It Forward Review
Some films know their limitations and excel within their boundaries, and some films aim for greatness and fall by the wayside. Unfortunately for Pay It Forward, the film finds itself in the latter category. The studio executives at Warner Bros must have been smiling secretly – Here was a film which could boast Oscar winners Kevin Spacey (alongside Tom Hanks as greatest actor on the planet) and Helen Hunt, not to mention young Haley Joel Osment, fresh from his Oscar nominated turn in The Sixth Sense. Directed by veteran of TV’s E.R., Mimi Leder was brought in to direct, and the film must have seemed to Warner’s like their best chance of success for the non-blockbuster sector.
On his first day of seventh grade, Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osmont) is given a social science project by his teacher Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey) to design an idea to change the world and put it into effect. The project is just a way by Simonet to inspire his pupils, but Trevor takes it too far, and as a solace from his single-parent-alcoholic-mother (Helen Hunt), Trevor creates a system entitled ‘Pay It Forward’, a plan whereby you have to help three random strangers with life changing favours, and rather than pay you back, they have to pay it forward to three other strangers. Trevor decides to try to use his idea to help his mother beat her alcohol addiction and to help others including his teacher Mr. Simonet, but soon his concept has far bigger and unexpected results.
The main problem with Pay It Forward is it lacks a sense of freshness. The previous year’s American Beauty had an alarming sense that you were witnessing a frequently visited theme tackled from a completely different angle. This is in essence what is wrong with Pay It Forward – it’s too conventional, and almost every aspect tries too hard to imitate rather than be original. The score by Thomas Newman is a blatant and pale imitator of his American Beauty effort, and cinematography, although nicely capturing the Las Vegas landscapes, fails to strike any new chords. There’s even an attempt to outdo Citizen Kane by having a subplot of a reporter asking various witnesses where Pay It Forward started, and even this fails to grant the film classic status. The film doesn’t achieve its attempted brilliance mainly to expectation, as we naturally expect the earth to move if a film has the quality of actors and crew that Pay It Forward has at its disposal. As much as it tries, the film cannot escape its predictable plotting, and as soon as you think it has turned the corner it retreats through the use of schmaltz. Indeed, the film is excellent until Jon Bon Jovi appears in a brief cameo, and never recovers from then on. The ending has been universally described as tremendously over sentimental, much like Leder’s previous Deep Impact, and had Leder cut the film’s last shots the film would have achieved a certain level of respect. Instead, it cops out, and by the final flame lighting and Field Of Dream rip-off ending you feel that the film is a missed opportunity, which given the people involved is a shame.
The picture is flawless and has vivid natural colours and tones. Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, the transfer is superb and Warner Bros are in my opinion the best when it comes to transfers of contemporary films. There isn’t a blemish in sight and the film looked better than in the cinema, which is always handy when explaining to your ignorant friends why DVD is better than their VHS.
For a film with such a low emphasis on high impact sound, the 5.1 mix on Pay It Forward is expertly mixed, as the dialogue sounds crisp and clear and the musical score and soundtrack has been pushed to the outside, giving a background feel. Many sound effects in the film have a three dimensional feel, such as audio pannings of cars and the omnipresent of rain falling, which helps the audience when it comes to an atmospheric feeling. Although there isn’t much call for sound in Pay It Forward, the sound is still utilised to its most capable limit.
Director’s Commentary The commentary by director Mimi Leder falls into the ‘Annoying’ category, whereby she starts off just talking you through the plot of the film, then name drops all of the major starring actors and tells you about them, as if you didn’t know who Kevin Spacey was already. She doesn’t reveal anything interesting that isn’t already known about the film, other than the setting of Las Vegas for Pay It Forward was her idea, and that the litigater who gives Jay Mohr the Jaguar was played by her husband. Leder clearly thinks too highly of Pay It Forward, dubbing it original, and a film of tremendously serious issues. It’s hard to agree with her, and I wonder if she should maybe stick to television.
Trailer Another case of trailers misrepresenting a film. Here, you would think that Pay It Forward is a charming and emotional tale about a boy who changes the world. The trailer promises greatness, but the film doesn’t deliver.
HBO: First Look – The Making Of Pay It Forward Another one of those annoying mixes of important scenes from the film with clips of actors and crew involved going on about how good the film is. Nothing new can be learned, but full marks to the makers of the featurette for making the film seem like a potential classic within the space of fourteen minutes.
Pay It Forward is by far and away a watchable film that will take up two hours and render them enjoyable, but that’s as far as it goes. The three leads are excellent as ever, and Helen Hunt is particularly sexy, but the film fails because it ultimately aims too high.