Netflix Update No. 64: “Pay it Forward”

April 30, 2012

Helen Hunt

Helen Hunt

The concept of “paying forward” evidently has been rattling around for a long time—at least as long ago as 317 BC, when it was woven into the plot of Dyskolos, a play by the Greek writer Menander.

We encountered the idea, known in sociology as “generalized reciprocity,” much more recently, namely in the 2000 film Pay it Forward, with Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey, Haley Joel Osment, Jon Bon Jovi, and Angie Dickinson.

Hunt plays Arlene McKinney, a woman estranged from her husband and trying to raise her son by working both as a pole dancer and as a waitress in a Las Vegas casino. Arlene and her absent husband, Rickey (Jon Bon Jovi) are both problem drinkers; Arlene, who is in a program for alcoholics, still sneaks a nip when she’s under stress, which is most of the time.

Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey

Arlene’s son, Trevor (Osment), is assigned to a seventh-grade social studies class taught by Eugene Simonet (Spacey) who has a badly scarred face. On the first day of class, Simonet gives his students a year-long assignment, which is to devise and at least attempt to carry out a plan that will change the world forever. Unlike many of his classmates, Trevor takes this assignment seriously, and he decides that his project will involve “paying forward,” by which he means that he will do a favor for each of three strangers and ask each of them to return the favor not to Trevor but to three other strangers. The goal, of course, is to set off an ever-expanding chain reaction of good will.

Trevor’s first attempt at putting this idea into practice is to invite a homeless drug addict to take a shower and have a meal at the McKinney home and to stay overnight. When Arlene discovers this plan already in progress, she has a predictable and understandable reaction, and it isn’t positive.

Haley Joel Osment

Haley Joel Osment

The incident inspires Arlene to visit the school and reprimand Simonet for making the assignment. The two don’t understand each other, and the interview is not successful. But Trevor decides to make the solitary Simonet the beneficiary of the next favor by tricking the teacher and Arlene into having dinner together, a scheme that does not succeed.

The story becomes increasingly complicated as Trevor runs away from home, Arlene and Simonet take a second look at their relationship, and Ricky reappears with the announcement that he is sober to stay.

This film begins with a sequence in which a Los Angeles reporter, Chris Chandler (Jay Mohr), stops at a crime scene and watches as a patrol car drives into his own vehicle, wrecking it beyond repair. A passer-by, an older and prosperous looking gent, hands Chandler the keys to a Jaguar, tells him to take it, and refuses to explain himself.

Jon Bon Jovi and Helen Hunt

Jon Bon Jovi and Helen Hunt

Chandler eventually determines that this incident is part of a series of good deeds that he traces back to Trevor Chandler.In the process, Chandler comes across a woman identified only as Grace, a homeless alcoholic played by Angie Dickinson and a key figure in the McKinney drama.

I go along with the Rotten Tomatoes assessment of this film: the story line is much too emotionally manipulative, but the performances by everyone in the cast nearly redeem the movie. I think most viewers would also find the conclusion of the story, which I won’t spoil here, to be contrived and unsatisfying.

Watch it, but keep your expectations under control.

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One Response to “Netflix Update No. 64: “Pay it Forward””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Now I know where the “paying it forward” business comes from. I missed the film, but suddenly the phrase was everywhere. Interesting.

    Even more interesting is this little bit of history I found about “random acts of kindness”, which seems related: “It all started in a Sausalito, California, restaurant in 1982 when Anne Herbert scrawled the words “practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty” on a place mat. From there it spread to bumper stickers, quietly at first, but with all the powerful momentum of something important–calling us to lives of caring and compassion.”

    Who knows? Without Anne and her placemat we might never have had the film!

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