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 ...

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