Seldom does one come across something that's harder to talk about, even think about, never mind write a critical review on, than a film that starts off with one message, then turns things around so far, that the resulting message becomes the opposite of the original one.
That's the problem with this otherwise fascinating, brilliantly acted movie -- based on the Catharine Ryan Hyde novel -- that goes on and on about how normal, everyday people can make positive changes in the world.
Here's the premise: If somebody, anybody, does a favor for you, one that really causes a difference in your life, you should make it an obligation to go out and do some sort of big favor for three other people, then tell each of those people that they must do a favor for three others, and so on. In other words, don't pay the favor back, pay it forward.
During the first 15 minutes of the film, it's made quite clear that just about every character is going to need a favor. These are folks who are either unhappy, down on their luck, not able to fend for themselves... the list goes on.
Helen Hunt is Arlene, a single mom in Vegas who has no idea where her long-gone, problematic husband is. She's struggling to get by, working in demeaning jobs, of which Vegas has plenty, and dealing with her own drinking problem. She's also having a communication breakdown with her bright -- but obviously hurting -- fatherless son, Trevor (Haley Joel Osment, proving that his acting prowess was no one-shot deal in The Sixth Sense). And he shares the problem with her, resulting in many a shouting match between them. These two need and deserve some help.
Then there's Trevor's new social studies teacher, Eugene (Kevin Spacey), a man with demons on the inside and the outside. He reveals early on that he would have much difficulty maintaining any kind of romantic relationship (guess who with), and it's shown even earlier that he doesn't have an easy time coping with the world in general due to some pretty nasty marks of disfiguration on his face. The makeup on him, by the way, is terrifically presented. He's not at all horrifying to look at; it's more like an impossibility not to look right at him. And as the film progresses, the scars seem less and less apparent.
The film, though, in an initially confusing manner, is about a lot more than just these three people. There's a reporter (Jay Mohr) chasing down a story, who is paid forward in the opening scene. There's a mysterious woman (Angie Dickinson) who chugs down bottles of booze and makes her home in a Vegas dump. There's a homeless man (James Caviezel, who has the biggest, bluest eyes since Malcolm McDowell), who not only is paid forward, but tries very hard to do the deed himself.
So we have a lot of people in many different types of trouble. The confusing part is that director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) and scripter Leslie Dixon (the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair) have to structure the film in a sort of haphazard manner, jumping back and forth in time, showing similar events that should be building to some sort of revelation. But in doing so, they only label one of them -- "four months earlier" -- and then let the viewer stumble through the rest, trying to figure out when different things are happening.
Most of the story does, indeed, stay on Trevor, Arlene and Eugene as they're gradually drawn closer together. And the main focus is on the fact that it's Eugene who plants the "pay it forward" idea in the mind of Trevor as part of a class exercise, one that he does with his students every fall at the beginning of school, just to see if anyone will take him up on it.
The storyline that comes out of that is downright inspiring. There's a chance the idea really could work. And in some of the plot twists that result, the film is absolutely uplifting, never in the least bit sappy. The difficulties of the different relationships are also presented in an honest, believable way.
But then comes the problem. The ending of the film will not be revealed here. But it's only fair to warn prospective audience members that even though the story pretends -- even convinces -- that it's heading toward positive ground, a lot of people are going to walk out of the theater in a less than good mood. Sure, the film sets up the audience with the possibility of a downer ending -- out of all these unhappy people in unhappy situations, something's apt to go wrong. But the road chosen is not going to be a popular one. Is this necessarily a bad decision? Maybe not. In fact, maybe, it's one of the more daring moves a filmmaker has ever made.