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.

HELEN HUNT

A lot of ills come from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Helen Hunt provides an example in the 2007 film “And Then She Found Me,” based on Elinor Lipman’s 1990 novel.

The film was produced, directed, and written in part by Helen Hunt, who also plays the “me” in the title. Perhaps she was having trouble concentrating.

The premise of this dour property that is  passed off as a “romantic comedy” is that    39-year-old April Epner’s adoptive mother has died — shortly after denying April’s charge that mom had favored her biological son. This comes on the heels of the collapse of April’s marriage to Ben Green (Broderick), who abruptly gives her the “I just can’t do this anymore” routine. Ben hasn’t cooled off too much to have a last barnyard fling with April on the kitchen floor, and that provides the delicate nuance of an awkward pregnancy — hers, not his.

April doggedly goes on with her career as a Brooklyn schoolteacher, which puts her in contact with Frank (Firth), the conveniently divorced father of one of her pupils. Frank, a sandy-haired teddy bear, has the earthy charm of the British Isles about him, and the romantic sheen of an unemployed and, one presumes, unappreciated writer. He isn’t too charming or romantic to resent the fact that Ben, thanks in part to the pregnancy, still has one foot in his relationship with April.

HELEN HUNT and BETTE MIDLER

As though April’s life weren’t interesting enough, a messenger comes to a school with a letter in which a woman who does not identify herself at first claims to be April’s biological mother. The woman turns out to be daytime television talk-show host Bernice Graves (Midler). April is skeptical about Bernice’s claim, infuriated by her badly contrived lies, and put off by her overbearing attempts to play mother.

 If the resolution of this tangled tale seems satisfactory, it may be only because the resolution means the film is over. It’s kind of like a cricket match in that regard.

Clearly we’re  supposed to find humor somewhere in this story, but there is none. There certainly is none coming from Hunt, who can be described only as grim.

Incidentally, in the scenes in which April and a shifting cast of companions visit the gynecologist, the doctor is portrayed by Salman Rushdie. I read somewhere that Hunt recruited him because she wanted to make sure all the major faiths were represented in a scene in which there is prayer. I’m not sure which faith he represents.

Hunt didn’t take the hint when she was turned down by the studios before making this film herself on a shoestring budget. Broderick, Firth, and Midler agreed to work for scale, which seems appropriate. If they had accepted their usual salaries for this film, their names should be on the placards in Zuccotti Park.

MAURA TIERNEY

MAURA TIERNEY

In catching up on the news today, I learned — a few days after everyone else, it seems — that Maura Tierney has withdrawn from NBC’s projected new series “Parenthood.” The speculation is that Helen Hunt, another wonderful actress, will replace her.

NBC had postponed the debut of the series when Tierney was diagnosed with cancer. She has already had surgery, but has put aside the series in order to accommodate her further treatment.

Like everyone else, I hope she fully recovers. I almost feel selfish in my disappointment that she won’t be on a series this season. I had reserved “Parenthood” for the only series I’d watch, and that was only because Maura Tierney was in it.

While I’m thinking of myself, I’m also looking forward to her resuming her career, because I hope she does a lot more on the stage. We got a chance to see her in her two off-Broadway projects, and found her to be a natural in the theater. That magnetism that works so well for her on television is even more potent in the intimacy of an off-Broadway house.

May God bless her and make her well.