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Schmaltz factor 

Pay it Forward a syrupy look at do-goodness

You've read the bumper stickers ("Mean People Suck"/"Practice Random Acts of Kindness") and heard the heartwarming tales of tender commuters paying the toll for their brethren. Now America's warm-and-fuzzy types who can't get enough Chicken Soup for the Soul and Paul Harvey homespun wisdom have a movie all their own, the marshmallow sweet and just as loaded with carcinogenic preservatives, Pay It Forward.In an unbearably schmaltzy call to arms and good citizenship, Hollywood's newest family-values hag Mimi Leder puts a positively Oprah spin on real-world superbummers like domestic abuse, alcoholism and school violence, screeching with all the sweet tenderness of a frothing-at-the-mouth Dr. Laura, that if Americans would just love thy neighbor, the world would be a better place, for Christ's sake.

The huggable moppet at the center of this post-Columbine plea to save our schools, our children, our planet is The Sixth Sense's tear-monkey Haley Joel Osment who gets dewy on cue, when he's not raging like a tiny Mussolini about America's moral failings.

Eleven-year-old Trevor (Osment) wears the weight of the world on his frail Tiny Tim shoulders, and in an early scene to establish America-as-modern-Gomorrah appraises the metal detectors and schoolmates toting hidden weapons or sucking face before class with the same moral anguish with which Christ appraised the money-changers in the temple.

The precious bundle perks up, though, after his first day with new seventh grade social studies teacher Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey, trying to beat America's sweetheart Tom Hanks at his own game), an erudite man of big ideas sporting terrible Mel Gibson facial scars (whose origin, we know, will eventually provide a big, juicy surprise revelation), who gives the kids an assignment: "Think of an idea to change the world and put it into action."

What should be a nobly intentioned wake-up call for America's kids to reverse the tide toward apathy and alienation by focusing on positive change, instead has, in Leder's clumsy meathooks, all of the genuine tenderness of a paid political ad.

Trevor takes a trickle-down approach: He decides if he can help three people, and those three people help three others, well, you do the math, in a matter of days, maybe hours, Earth will be back on track.

Trevor initially turns his attention to an angelic homeless guy (The Thin Red Line's Christ-like James Caviezel) living in a Hooveresque hobo town behind Vegas' MGM Grand Hotel. But when his pet bum goes back on the smack, the lovable scamp turns his do-good high beams on boozer cocktail waitress Mom, Arlene (Helen Hunt).

Trevor struggles mightily to set Arlene up with a good man, as the film suddenly shifts gears from a story about karmic good neighborliness to a kid-sets-up-adults romance in the Shirley Temple mode. Revoltingly played for cute is the series of events in which Trevor tries to push Arlene and Simonet to their first sleepover date, doing everything but slipping Simonet a condom to get things underway.

For such a self-righteous movie, Pay It Forward has its own share of racism, class snobbery and spurious moralism in this sloppy attempt to help Americans get in touch with themselves made by a group of people who are out of touch with reality.

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