Hectoring Hollywood to straighten up and fly right is the popular political sport of the season. As if on cue, the life-affirming "Pay It Forward" arrives on the scene, swelled up with good intentions and garlanded with three recent Oscar-contending actors. Its hero is an 11-year-old boy, Trevor (Haley Joel Osment), who is inspired by his seventh-grade teacher to practice random acts of kindness. The teacher, Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey), a man whose face is disfigured with burn scars, exhorts his class to "think of an idea to change the world, and put it into action." Trevor, a solemn, sensitive lad whose mother is an alcoholic Las Vegas cocktail waitress (Helen Hunt), devises a plan to do three good deeds. Each of the three recipients of his selfless acts must "pay it forward," performing three good deeds in turn. Thus begins a movement with the potential to change the world.
There are many different ways a premise like this could play out (imagine what the sardonic Spaniard Luis Bunuel, for whom no good deed went unpunished, could have done with this). However, we are stuck with the movie that director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Leslie Dixon have concocted from the novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. If this is what Hollywood considers serious, important filmmaking, maybe the movie industry should stick to the low road. Directed with the in-your-face subtlety of a sitcom, the tone of the movie is weirdly miscalculated from the get-go. When Leder isn't milking the material for inappropriate laughs, she's desperately tugging at the heartstrings. Neither ploy works. It's bad enough when a shameless tear-jerker like "Remember the Titans" puts a lump in your throat; even worse is the tear-jerker that can't raise a sniffle.
The first of Trevor's good deeds is to take in a homeless heroin addict (a badly used Jim Caviezel, all of whose scenes ring false). His second is to hook up his backsliding mom (who has a weakness for abusive men) with Mr. Simonet. The unlikely romance begins to bloom, in spite of the self-protective, emotionally and physically scarred teacher's fear of relationships, and Mom's bad habits. While Hunt has been encouraged to stridently overact (especially in her bad-girl phase, before she gets a cosmetic and moral makeover), Osment and Spacey manage to achieve some moments of honesty amid the melodramatic hokum. But it's an uphill battle: Spacey is saddled with a tragic family backstory (his abusive father was even worse than Trevor's) that echoes the boy's all too neatly. Osment demonstrates again that he's uncannily gifted, but it would be nice if someone gave him a part where he could lighten up and act his age. His do-gooder's role seems designed not just to win him a nomination, but canonization. (To keep Oscars in the viewer's mind, Thomas Newman has been asked to produce a faded carbon copy of his haunting "American Beauty" score.)
"Pay It Forward" piles on enough domestic horrors to fill a month's worth of Jerry Springer shows. This is the sort of movie where as soon as Trevor, running away from home, enters a bus station, he's approached by a child molester. Adding to the clutter is the parallel tale of a reporter (Jay Mohr) who is trying to track down the "pay it forward" phenomenon. These scenes take place at a later date than the running story, making a bumpy ride even bumpier. For the sake of those who might enjoy this high-minded sermon (and from the scattered applause, some will), I won't give away the ending: but for truly egregious sappiness, it's hard to beat.