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Pay It Forward Reviews

There's no faulting this movie's Capra-esque concept, equal parts optimism and sad recognition of the world's intrinsic harshness, but its manipulative execution may rub you the wrong way. Each year, social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) gives his seventh graders the same extra-credit assignment: Think of a way to make the world a better place and put it into action. But this time around there's a new idea amidst the usual half-assed recycling projects: 11-year-old Trevor (Haley Joel Osment) proposes a kind of chain letter of good deeds. Find three people who need help, give them a hand and tell them that instead of paying back the favor, they should quietly pay it forward to three other needy souls. Trevor starts close to home, trying to help a local junkie (Jim Caviezel) get back on his feet, a fellow student escape bullies and, most ambitiously, playing matchmaker for his alcoholic mom (Helen Hunt, with her pinched good looks buried under a nest of fried hair and white-trash togs) and Eugene, whose heart is even more scarred than his badly burned face. Though Trevor's initial attempts don't flower as smoothly as he would have liked, the seeds of his "pay it forward" campaign take root in unexpected places. To its credit, Mimi Leder's adaptation of Catherine Ryan Hyde's inspirational novel is covered with a convincing layer of grit; Las Vegas is an inspired backdrop for a story of glittering pipe dreams, and there's an 11th-hour sting concealed in the feel-good sweetness. But the back-and-forth between Trevor's story and that of an aggressively cynical reporter (Jay Mohr) investigating the origins of this "Mother Teresa conga line" is awkward (it's a cumbersome holdover from the novel's multiple points of view); Hunt and Spacey have zero onscreen chemistry, and their extravagantly praised performances seem built on the classic Hollywood wisdom that you can't go wrong letting yourself look really awful.