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Pay It Forward

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In recent years, Mimi Leder has established a career as a workmanlike director of passable, big-budget action films such as Deep Impact and The Peacemaker. In Pay It Forward, a drama about a boy (Haley Joel Osment) who creates a sort of pyramid scheme in which participants repay a favor by helping three others, Leder works with all the subtlety of a meteor obliterating Earth. Despite a fine cast that includes Kevin Spacey (as the burn-victim social-studies teacher who inspires Osment's project) and Helen Hunt (as Osment's alcoholic, deeply flawed mother), no one in Pay It Forward can overcome detriments ranging from Jon Bon Jovi's undershirt-clad deadbeat dad to a slick-haired seventh-grade tough who shows off his new knife to toadies, who exclaim, "Cool blade!" Early on, Spacey pulls the film almost up to his level, but about halfway through, he's reduced to spouting a series of dramatic monologues tailor-made for Oscar clips as Hunt stands by, looking uncomfortable in a series of revealing outfits. Still, for all its corny moments and Christ metaphors—and a groaner of a framing device in which intrepid reporter Jay Mohr researches "the Pay It Forward movement"—the film's noble intentions almost keep it afloat: It may be a 125-minute adaptation of a "random acts of kindness" bumper sticker, but its heart is in the right place. That is, until the last five minutes. At that point, following an absurd twist that's both strangely implausible and deeply unsatisfying, Leder does everything short of grasping each audience member's head and plucking nose hairs in a disgusting ploy to wring out a few more reflexive tears. It's an ugly way to end a movie that had been surfing modestly on a wave of phony uplift.