I'm not usually one to say the book is better than the movie. But in the case of the new film "Pay it Forward," the book is better than the movie.
That's not to say Catherine Ryan Hyde's 1999 novel was any masterpiece. But mucky as "Forward" was in its first incarnation, its tale of a well-meaning pre-teen whose extra credit project changes not only his life but the rest of the world was certainly a welcome dose of chicken soup for the well-intentioned soul.
That philanthropic soul belongs to Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment), a resourceful seventh grader who lives in Las Vegas with his mother Arlene (Helen Hunt), a waitress and "recovering" alcoholic.
Inspiration hits Trevor when his disfigured social studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), proposes an extra credit assignment asking his pupils to find a way to make the world a better place. Trevor decides to help three people in a major way, and instead of asking them to repay him, he asks each to do the same for three other people. These deliberate acts of kindness will grow at an exponential rate until the world becomes a more compassionate place.
Hyde's book actually made this plan seem feasible. But in trimming down the plot, Leslie Dixon cuts much of the meat out of the novel rather than the fat. Instead, she devotes too much screen time to Trevor's second deed, the one that hits closest to home: hooking up his mother and his teacher. Unfortunately, this match was the weakest link in Hyde's work, and the relationship between Arlene and Eugene - a frustratingly prolonged series of stops and starts - never really takes off the ground and feels forced.
We never really feel how far-reaching the effects of Trevor's plan become, because Dixon excises many instances of goodwill that took place around the nation in the novel. This also deprives several supporting players from playing out powerful scenes. Kathleen Wilhoite, in particular, is one example of wasted potential as Arlene's AA sponsor.
James Caviezel is the only second-tier player in "Forward" to rise above Dixon's hack job. He is Jerry, a drug-addicted homeless man who struggles to move beyond his past when Trevor chooses to help him. It is a haunting performance from a man who already showed promise this year in "Frequency."
But Dixon is only a partner in crime here. Director Mimi Leder chooses to bathe "Forward" in the same pathos in which she nearly drowned "Deep Impact" and many early episodes of "ER." In fact, one of the great tragedies of the movie is how it loses its sense of grandiosity. It plays much more like a made-for-television movie, replete with seemingly cheap production design and a pace that halts as though it came commercial-break ready.
Another unnecessary change is a shift in geography. The novel took place in a lower-class area of Los Angeles, but Dixon sets her version in the heart of Vegas. The point was that great ideas can emerge from the most unexpected and overlooked areas of the world, but the film instead devotes extra attention to the flashiest place in the world.
I also find it amusing that Hunt and Spacey have generated so much heat over their off-screen antics as a couple. On-screen, they generate no chemistry together at all. Hunt is particularly problematic. Arlene is a composite of characters we've already seen her play: romantic aggressor, alcoholic, strong struggling single mother. There's nothing fresh about Arlene.
And Hunt's most emotive scenes end up feeling overly mechanical. In one of the film's turning points, Arlene slaps Trevor, and the next several moments hinge on her remorseful reaction. We see tears well, we watch her impulsively grasp for a drink. The emotions and the actorly resources are there, but they never add up to anything greater. Instead, it's just a textbook performance, the kind students must play out in acting class. That should be the beginning of an actor's understanding of his craft, not the result. Vivien Leigh is an actress famed for her precise work, but she was always able to transcend her meticulous devices into the illusion of being in the moment.
Spacey, on the other hand, gets to emote far more than he has in the more cryptic roles that have provided his greatest success. Much has been made of Dixon's whitewashing of the novel, in which she changed Eugene from an African-American Vietnam vet (a role seemingly tailor-made for Laurence Fishburne) to a white victim of child abuse. These changes are beyond skin-deep; they, too, eliminate the magnitude that ultimately brought the novel's simmer to a boil.
All of this leaves young Osment to carry the weight, which he ably does. Cast as someone wise beyond his years, though he loses many of the opportunities that his character of Cole brought him in "The Sixth Sense." In that film, he was a child struggling to adapt to forces he did not understand and could rely on natural instincts. Trevor is really just a wise adult, an unrewarding, two-dimensional character who is beneath his talent.
But even talent like that cannot save a movie this hollow-hearted. Leder mines "Forward" in melodrama, and the empty moral fable blows up in her face.