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Pay It Forward

Random acts of kindness — both Gore and Dubya can get behind an idea like that. And they can both get behind this generically “inspirational” movie. Not since Gump has there been such a pandering, faux-virtuous package of populist pap for Hollywood to shove in the faces of electioneering politicos and say: Look, we don’t just market unwholesome swill to families, we market wholesome swill, too.

Man, oh, man, is this a lousy movie. And it comes from smart people who should know better. Kevin Spacey, covered in burn-scar makeup, plays Eugene Simonet, a social-studies teacher in Las Vegas who gives his seventh-grade class an assignment: Figure out a way to make the world a better place.

Student Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) takes him up on it. Trevor’s having a tough go of life. His alcoholic mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), fresh from throwing out her abusive husband, Ricky (Jon Bon Jovi), slings drinks at a strip club to support her son and her own booze habit. So Trevor hatches a plan: He’ll do good deeds for three strangers, who must do good deeds for three other strangers, and so on until goodness rules. Not pay it back, but pay it forward.

I haven’t read the Catherine Ryan Hyde novel on which the film is based, but the script, by Leslie Dixon (The Thomas Crown Affair), is of an unvaried ineptitude that confirms your worst fears that Trevor will become a cult hero, play matchmaker to his mom and teacher, and tragedy will strike.

Director Mimi Leder’s TV work on ER and China Beach revealed a gift for heart without hooey, a gift that she has misplaced. If you rate actors by how little you catch them acting, then prepare to pass out failing grades. Blubbery confessionals don’t suit Spacey, a master of irony in his Oscar-winning roles in American Beauty and The Usual Suspects. Fellow Oscar winner Hunt fares even worse. She’s doing the tarty, single-mom Erin Brockovich thing, with push-up bras, hair extensions and raccoon eye makeup, but her performance is shrill to the max. Only Osment, the Sixth Sense wonder boy, shows dimension and subtlety, that is, until the script turns him into a cardboard saint. Crass manipulation can clean up at the box office, so do your part: Nail this flick as a bottom feeder and pay the bad word forward to three others. That’s a true act of kindness.

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