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The Hunt For The Worst Movie Of All Time: Pay It Forward

Gabe Delahaye | April 13, 2009 - 4:07 pm

A routine wikipedia search for Pay It Forward actually turns up two separate results. One, obviously, is for the Haley Joel Osment film that we are about to discuss, but the other entry is for the very idea of paying it forward, which can supposedly be traced back to Benjamin Franklin?

The concept was described by Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Benjamin Webb dated April 22, 1784:

“I do not pretend to give such a Sum; I only lend it to you. When you […] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

So Benjamin Franklin is responsible for this movie? Uh oh, someone should probably check his grave. I have a feeling the one he has has been rolled in too much! (I discovered eleczingcity!)

Pay It Forward is about an 11-year-old boy (Haley Joel Osment) growing up in Las Vegas, who is given a daring Dead Poets Society assignment by his burn-faced new social studies teacher (Kevin Spacey). He is told to come up with a way to change the world for the better and put it into action. So he brings a homeless heroin addict to his house and gives him cereal and then tells the homeless heroin addict to help three other people, I guess by giving them cereal. Meanwhile, his mom (Helen Hunt) is a stripper who hides vodka in the washing machine. As his social experiment progresses, Haley Joel Osment groes increasingly despondent about its chances for success. Maybe an 11-year-old can’t change the world after all (SPOILER ALERT: correct). He tries to help Old Burnsides, Kevin Spacey, by setting him up on a date with his stripper mom, because according to Haley Joel Osment the point is for the good deeds to be difficult, and nothing is more difficult than getting your mom and your teacher laid at the same time? Now that the teacher and the mom are in love, the abusive ex-boyfriend dad shows up. Oh no! Then he goes away. Oh yay! But Kevin Spacey refuses to forgive Helen Hunt for choosing the abusive ex over him, because he is burned because of abuse, and now he is burned twice, one time in his heart. MEANWHILE, Jay Mohr is a freelance reporter whose car is destroyed in an accident. A mysterious man appears out of the rain and gives him a Jaguar and tells him to pay it forward. Naturally, this is going to be such a great newspaper article, so eventually Jay Mohr traces the story all the way back to Haley Joel Osment and interviews him for TV, because freelance journalists writing a community interest piece are always getting to broadcast stuff on national TV all the time. After the interview, Helen Hunt and Captain Burn Face of the SS. On Fire start making out against some lockers, you know, appropriate teacher-parent behavior at school, which is when Haley Joel Osment GETS STABBED by another 11-year-old with a PONYTAIL. Then everyone comes and gives him a candlelight vigil, which may or may not count towards the three favors they have to do to repay getting free cars and bikes all the time.

Woof.

The movie, of course, is based off the novel of the same name, by Catherine Ryan Hide, but it’s not even the first book of its kind, says Wikipedia:

It is also possible that the book was inspired by Lloyd C. Douglas’ popular depression era novel, Magnificent Obsession about a doctor who starts a secretive good deeds movement with the catchphrase, “I’ve already used it all up myself.”

Haha. It’s so weird that “I’ve already used it all up myself” hasn’t been a totally redhot catchphrase. I enjoy some of your cold milkshake.

Look, we all want to make the world a better place. Or at the very least, we all respect the desire to make the world a better place. And I am sure that this movie thought that’s what it was doing. Perhaps, Pay It Forward seems to suggest, you yourself will turn off your TV, and go out into the world with the idealistic idea “invented” by this fictional 11-year-old and start your own grass-roots-movement to get everyone their own free Jaguar. And it’s exactly this positive attitude and bedrock of good intentions that make the end result all the more heartbreaking, because instead of making the world a better place, this movie makes it a worse place. Because now this movie exists. And that is a shame.

Obviously, the film’s acting is mostly terrible. Kevin Spacey, Haley Joel Osment, and Jay Mohr have all appeared in the Hunt before, and for good reason. They are bad at their jobs. Helen Hunt is a perfectly decent actress if she’s playing a knowing middle-aged middle-class woman who doesn’t have time for your whining because she has so many problems of her own, but not so great as a 20-something lower-middle-class Las Vegas stripper who doesn’t have time for your vocabulary words because she has so many problems of her own. Not that it’s even her fault. Everyone on the film seems to have dropped the ball on the whole stripper thing, all the way down to the set designer.

Oh, you know me, just a regular ol’ 20-something Las Vegas stripper, cleaning out my refrigerator. Ho hum.

Better make sure to wipe under the case of Cliff Bars.

And the badness goes on from there:

“I have feelings and I would like to explain them to you like you’re stupid.”

In fact, with the exception of Haley Joel Osment, who does as good a job portraying an 11-year-old boy as any humanoid alien with anime eyes could, everyone is pretty terribly miscast. Have I mentioned that the black cloud nightmare abusive father is played by JON BON JOVI?

The only reveal more hilariously anti-climactic than that is when Kevin Spacey slowly unbuttons his shirt.

MAKE HIM FEEL GOOOOOOOD.

or:

HOW’D IT GET BURNED?! HOW’D IT GET BURNED HOW’D IT GET BURNED?!

And although I don’t think this is the Worst Movie of All Time, I do think this might be the Worst Scene of All Time:

Which brings us to the very real problem at the heart of Pay It Forward, which is pay what forward? Jay Mohr is given a Jaguar to replace his ruined car, which is not a real thing that would ever happen, ever, in a million years, with peace on Earth and cities made of candy, because COME ON. But that’s actually the most believable instance of someone doing a good deed. What is so charitable and magnanimous about screaming in a nurse’s face and FIRING A GUN IN AN EMERGENCY ROOM? Meanwhile, the reason the “gangbanger,” which I’m sure is how he’s listed in the credits, is paying it forward is because someone did him a huge favor. What was that favor? Helping him evade police after he robbed an electronics store. Perfect. Let’s all make the world such a great place with this beautiful idea, you guys.

I haven’t been so mad about a condescendingly illogical life lesson since Tuesdays with Morrie.

All of that being said, the fact of the matter is that I’ve already done all of you a favor by watching this, and all I want you to do in return is give three people Jaguars. Jaguar it forward, you guys.

Next week: Butterfly Effect. As always, please leave your suggestions in the comments or in an email. And if you haven’t done so already, please consult the Official Rules.