The lead character in Pay It Forward isn't Kevin Spacey's burn-victim Social Studies teacher, or Haley Joel Osment's compassionate white-trash student, but an idea that Osment's character comes up with when challenged by Spacey's to change the world. His idea is to do three big favors for people, and if they try to pay him back, make them "pay it forward" to someone else—a pyramid scheme of benevolence.
OK, interesting idea—it certainly beats the revenge-endorsement of Gladiator or the self-absorption in The Virgin Suicides—but it doesn't necessarily make for decent art. It feels more like a lecture than a story; the characters are puppets of the Idea, rather than people. It's only the strong performances from Spacey and Helen Hunt, which breathe life into their marionette roles, that make the movie as involving as it is. Spacey, whose bossy arrogance earned laughs in The Big Kahuna and American Beauty, proves himself equally at ease with cocooned fear. Hunt, as the alcoholic mom of Osment's character, does a superb job in her transformative arc, moving from defensive self-reliance into intimacy with three others. The pair helps keep the movie from crossing over to schmaltz.
Screenwriter Leslie Dixon also deserves credit for keeping the movie from getting too sappy, considering the lack of restraint shown in the book she adapted. In Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel, the scarred teacher is also a Vietnam vet and an African-American (so full of issues!), the love story between the teacher and single mother is written in a soap opera style that yo-yos wildly, and a comet falls when one character recognizes another's humanity (aww … ). Worse, the book is set in a utopian future, looking back at how the world changed; the movie wisely tells its story from the present, making it much more about the people, and about the possibilities. But the novel's biggest failing is an inadequate depiction of the human heart. The good deeds in the novel—tending a garden, a gift of money, rescue from certain death—posit that gifts of possessions (flowers, cash, life) will transform hearts. The movie, while retaining several of the same deeds, includes at least one gift of relationship, an act of forgiveness that heals old wounds. This seems to me more spiritually sound; I do not follow Christ for, say, a free trip to heaven, but for the relationship I am allowed with him.
Pay It Forward lends itself to spiritual comparisons; its concept isn't too far removed from Jesus' revelation in Matthew 25:40 that "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." Jesus gave his love to us, and we're to pay it forward to others. The movie, as contrived as it is at times, at least asks you to remember the last time you helped someone without expecting anything—even a pat on the back—in return. It challenges you to look around yourself for need; since seeing the movie I found two needs I was able to take care of (although neither of them fit the movie's criteria of helping someone with something they can't do on their own). Pay It Forward is also smart enough to acknowledge the risk in living for others, getting involved, and going against the status quo. Although an early scene where Osment's character brings home a street bum is played for laughs, instead of playing on our fears, we are later reminded that many people will take advantage of someone's selflessness rather than respect it.
That said, Pay It Forward is ultimately crippled by the common misperception that good deeds make you a good person. It focuses on what you do, not who you are. Let's say one guy jogs each morning because he's worried about his health, but can't stand doing it. His neighbor was taught to love the rejuvenation of fresh air, the pleasure of burning muscles, and the time of solitude. One jogs out of love and pleasure, the other out of obligation or fear; one is likely to keep jogging, the other likely to stop. To make lasting changes in people, hearts must be transformed rather than actions. The New Testament makes this principle clear by reminding us that good works don't save us (Ephesians 2:8-9), but that changed hearts will produce good works (James 2:17). The Christian faith is, of course, about more than good deeds.
Nevertheless, Christians often fall into one of the traps in the "pay it forward" idea: assuming that if a particular formula works one place, it's reproducible elsewhere. American missionaries often bring denominational styles of worship to other countries that don't necessarily fit the culture. Successful evangelical churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback find other churches copying their formula, as if the gifts of the staff and the interests of the local attendees weren't huge factors of their achievements. To bring it back to movies for a moment, some churches use movie clips in a service because their congregations have an interest in finding truth in pop culture; others use clips because someone heard that it's popular now.
It's a comfort to know that God doesn't share in our human limitations, that he is able to meet each one of us as we are, in a unique relationship that fills our most hidden needs. Human attempts to parallel that power, like Pay It Forward, are interesting to contemplate, perhaps even inspirational, but ultimately an empty hope.
Photography by David James/ Warner Brothers & Bel Air Pictures LLC
Douglas LeBlanc also reviewed the film for Christianity Today.
Visit the official Pay it Forward movie site.
Read the Denver Post's book review of Pay It Forward.
Read "Five Singing Gardeners," a short story by Ryan Hyde.
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