Hollywood is filled with self-proclaimed do-gooders, whose claims that they genuinely want to make the world a better place are enough to provoke even the most open-minded viewer into splutters of disbelief. But, whether or not director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) is genuinely preaching novelist Catherine Ryan Hyde's concept of extreme altruism with her screen adaptation, you've got to admit it is a pretty neat - - and, yes, not entirely unfeasible - - concept.
Trevor's (Haley Joel Osment) "Pay It Forward" plan quite simply involves helping someone out in a big way and, rather than have them pay you back, get them to do the same for three other people. Then each of those people has to do the same for three other people, and so it spreads, like "a Mother Teresa conga" as one character puts it.
The scenes which explore the spread of this idea are certainly Pay It Forward's more interesting moments. While Trevor kicks it off by inviting a smack-addicted bum (Jim Caviezel) into his home, we flash-forward to the other end of the "chain" as journalist Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr) investigates the "movement". Unfortunately, however, the bulk of the plot follows Trevor's attempt to pay it forward to his facially scarred teacher, Mr Simonet (Kevin Spacey), by trying to fix him up with his mother (Helen Hunt). So it's not long before you realise you're simply watching a predictable, against- the-odds Hollywood love story, with Osment playing the part of Cupid.
Just as predictable is Helen Hunt's trailer-trashette performance and Spacey's "straight-laced man with a dark secret" act. Both do the best they can, but the lurch from disliking each other to loving each other is too clumsy for even the most sensitive actor to portray convincingly. Still, Sixth Sense wonder-boy Osment easily holds his own, supplying some praiseworthy interplay with both Spacey and Hunt.
The problem is there's nothing the three leads can do to protect us from the deluge of sentimentality that comes with the hamfisted ending. As Leder tries to crowbar more poignancy in, so she wrecks any subtlety and credibility the movie previously had, turning what could have been competently feelgood into something that's simply feelsick.
A fairly typical feelgooder with strong performances and a thought-provoking premise, but it suffers from an emotionally manipulative ending which taints everything else. Pay it forward: tell three friends to walk out five minutes before the end...