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Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, Haley Joel Osment, Jay Mohr, James Caviezel, Jon Bon Jovi
Director: Mimi Leder
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Featurette, Commentary, Trailer
Length: 123 Minutes
Release Date: May 15, 2001

It has to be something that really helps people.

It has to be something they can not do by themselves.

I do it for them, they do it for three other people.

Film ****

Would it ever be possible to do a favor for a stranger, and not ask for anything in return, except to pay a similar kind a favor forward to another? To be quite honest with you, I’m not sure the idea would work in a somewhat cynical world, but Pay It Forward is a movie with such potential inspiration. A beautiful, purely realized piece that wonderfully mixes tragedy, romance, a little humor, and melodrama, with an originally inspiring tale at its core. That is also lead by three amazing performances from Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment...you know, that little boy who claimed he could see dead people.

What exactly is the idea behind Pay it Forward? As the film opens, history teacher Eugene Simonet (Spacey) presents his class with a rare first day homework assignment, which is to think of a unique idea to help change the world we live in. One of the students, Trevor (Osment) responds with what Simonet describes as an “overly utopian idea”. He will do acts of kindness for three individuals, and then those three will pay the favor forward to three other individuals, and so on, and so on, and so on. Following school that day, Trevor encounters a rugged homeless man (James Caviezel), and invites him to his house for dinner. Trevor’s mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt), works two jobs and is burned out alcoholic. It’s been six months since she and Trevor’s dad (Jon Bon Jovi) have been split, which sets up Trevor’s second act of kindness, which is to set up her mom with no less than Mr. Simonet.

There’s a neat subplot involving reporter Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr) who tracks the pay it forward story, which eventually reaches from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. Chandler is sort of saved in the beginning himself. In the opening of the film, while attempting to gain information on a hostage situation, the suspect flees from the cops, and damages the reporter’s Mustang in the process.  Chandler then encounters a stranger who willingly gives him the keys to his Jaguar. He asks, “You giving me a brand new Jaguar, and you don’t want anything in return?” The stranger replies perfectly with, “Call it generosity between two strangers.” One of the more fascinating aspects of the story is how Mohr’s character discovers why people are paying it forward. The man who gave him the jaguar gives him the name of a prisoner named Sidney. He then goes to get Sidney’s story of how and why he did his favor, and who it was that inspired him to pay it forward.

The movie is directed by Mimi Leder, director of the outstanding action pic The Peacemaker and the asteroid-disaster clunker Deep Impact. I was aggravated by how Deep Impact forced its emotional roller coaster at the benefit of such stale characterizations. However, Leder makes this element a warm welcome in the story and the characterizations of Pay it Forward. Spacey and Hunt portray people who are burned souls in one form or another. Arlene harbors an obvious problem in her life in which she at one point even tries to deny, while Simonet, who acquires noticeable burns on his face, hides some serious emotional pain underneath the surface of a very intelligent mind. Then there’s Osment’s Trevor, who doesn’t have any problems, but works at his best to make life better, both for him and his mother, and maybe the rest of the world at the same time. Much has been made of the film’s ending. I’m not going to spoil any details, but I will advise you, dear viewer, to have the Kleenex near by, because it even caught me by sheer surprise.

Pay it Forward is nothing short of a wondrous movie experience. If you have a big heart and a soft side, chances are you will remember this movie for a long time to come. And like so few movies do, this actually gives the viewer a feeling of inspiration.

Video ****

This is one glowing presentation from Warner Bros. The picture is thoroughly sharp and crisp, and the colors are undeniably vibrant and illuming. Not an inch of grain in sight, and absolutely no detection of any softness or haziness in the picture whatsoever. A completely remarkable job!

Audio ***

The audio transfer is very acceptable. The 5.1 Dolby Digital presentation provides moments of dynamic use of the film’s soundtrack and certain individual scenes in which numerous sound effects are used, particularly during an intense conflict which results in the film’s tragic closing. Since this is a movie made up of primarily dialogue, that’s about as high praise as I can give it.

Features **1/2

After such wonderful job with features on recent releases like Miss Congeniality and Superman, I would’ve liked to have seen more done to this disc, but it does have some high points. There’s a nice commentary track by Mimi Leder in which she opens up perfectly stating, “This is my first non-nuclear warhead movie, and my first non-asteroid collision movie”. Also included is an HBO First Look special on the making of the movie, and a trailer.


Pay it Forward is a truly powerful movie that unfortunately did not receive the attention it deserved in its theatrical run. It was even worthy of a few Oscar nominations in my opinion, particularly for Spacey and Hunt. You won’t come across a more emotionally charged and inspiring movie than this. Call it my way of paying it forward, I urge you all experience it.