Any number of movies can bomb critically and commercially to the extent that they harm the star or director or even the writer involved with the respective project. But, 13.5 years later, the utter carnage reaped by Pay It Forward remains impressive and perhaps unprecedented. Yes the movie wasn't very good and yes it didn't make very much money at the box office. But the impressive thing about Pay It Forward, a would-be Oscar bait drama released in October of 2000, is how brutally it crushed the careers of pretty much all of its major players, inflicting wounds that have only just now started to wear off. The film was considered a major player prior to its release. starring recent Academy Award winners Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Oscar nominee (and shoulda-been winner) Haley Joel Osment. It was helmed by Mimi Leder, fresh off the blockbuster success of Deep Impact. The film was not a critical darling, getting savaged by critics to such a degree that many outright spoiled the film's kinda-sorta twist ending purely out of spite. And it was not a box office success either, earning just $55 million worldwide off a $40 million budget. But more importantly, the negative reaction to the film was so severe that it iced the white-hot buzz around all of its primary players.
Remember how big of a deal Kevin Spacey was back in 1995-2000? Coming off The Usual Suspects and Se7en, Spacey became the new critical darling of both the film critic establishment and the film school students of my generation. He followed up his surprise Oscar win as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects with A Time To Kill, LA Confidential, The Negotiator, A Bug's Life and then capped off the decade with another Oscar winning turn in American Beauty. But after Pay It Forward, Spacey's heat cooled off considerably. The already in-development K-Pax actually opened to $20 million the next year, but after that it was a string of poorly received 'message movies' (The Shipping News, The Life of David Gale) and mostly ignored passion projects (anyone remember Beyond the Sea?). Look at it this way, back in 1998, when the Tim Burton-helmed Death of Superman flirted with casting Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor it was seen as a massive 'get' on par with Burton scoring Nicholson to play The Joker in Batman. But eight years later, Spacey playing Luthor in Superman Returns was seen as director Brian Singer doing a favor to a friend who needed a high-profile gig. He still worked steadily, occasionally adding spice to high-toned trash like 21, but it wasn't until his recent high-profile starring role in Netflix's House of Cards that Spacey even remotely mattered over the last decade.
Helen Hunt's fall was faster. She was coming off an Oscar win for As Good As It Gets and the blockbuster success of Twister. She had two projects still in the pipeline in December 2000, both of which were massive hits (Cast Away and What Women Want). Tarnished by allegations that her 1997 Oscar win was undeserved and inexplicably trashed under the false meme that her performance as a working-poor Vegas waitress was somehow a rip-off of Erin Brockovich, Hunt lost all momentum as a cinematic leading lady. Even more so than Spacey, her output shrank considerably and her momentum was stopped cold. Aside from a few small roles in the likes of Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Bobby and starring roles in small films few people saw (A Good Woman, Empire Falls, Every Day), along with directing and starring in Then She Found Me, Helen Hunt staid out of the spotlight until she, coincidence or not, was old enough to play AnnaSophia Robb's mother in Soul Surfer in 2011. Now she's back with a high profile Oscar bait pic The Sessions so a comeback may be in order. Not to play the gender card again, but would an actor with starring roles in four $150 million+ blockbusters in four years, two of which topped $200 million, have been so viciously felled by a single high-profile flop?
Haley Joel Osmant's crash is more complicated. Like Hunt and Spacey, he still had at least one big project in the pipeline, the painfully underrated AI: Artificial Intelligence. But Osment took an incredible amount of flack for a perfectly serviceable dramatic performance, basically erasing all of the good will achieved by his superb turn in The Sixth Sense just over a year earlier. After AI, it was basically game over for Osment. He did a couple straight-to-DVD Disney voice over gigs, a would-be comeback project (Secondhand Lions) that no one saw, and then petered out into the realm of video game voice overs and small pictures that few if anyone saw (Home of the Giants, Montana Amazon, Sassy Pants). He may or may not return in some capacity, but it's clear that his ship has sailed, with one of the best kid actors of his generation arguably relegated to being a trivia question and/or pop culture punchline. Even the writer, Leslie Dixon, adapting Catherine Ryan Hyde's book, was pretty much MIA for the next seven years. She wrote Freaky Friday in 2003 and Just Like Heaven in 2005 before popping back up in 2007 to pen Hairspray and The Heartbreak Kid and then writing Limitless in 2011.
The damage was also brutal, and at the moment, permanent, for director Mimi Leder. In short, she hasn't made a theatrical feature in thirteen years. Her 2009 Morgan Freeman/Antonio Banderas thriller Thick As Thieves or The Code went straight-to-DVD in the states. She's done various television episodes and flirted with projects like remaking All Quiet On the Western Front, but nothing has actually come to fruition. Again, not to play the gender card again, but I have a hard time believing that a male director with Deep Impact and the terrific and painfully ahead-of-its-time action thriller The Peacemaker on his resume could be permanently felled by the token under-performance of a $40 million character drama. But Leder, having already proven her chops at hard action and melodrama, has been completely MIA from the American theatrical scene. What I'd give to see her action chops used for something like The Expendables 3 or a random action-heavy comic book picture. She made my list last year for female directors who should have gotten at least a shot at a Hunger Games sequel and I still stand by that.
The irony of all of this is two-fold. First of all, Pay It Forward, aside from perhaps its ridiculous ending, it's *that* bad of a movie. In fact I'd argue much of the venom spewed its way was on account of its somewhat shameless and wrongheaded finale. It's initial premise, with Osment trying to make the world a better place by getting people to do good deeds for one another, is intriguing and it's told with a certain adult sensibility. But the film has a needless secondary story with Jay Mohr as a reporter who stumbles onto the phenomenon which takes away from the core narrative. Also problematic is the eventual romantic subplot, which turns to the film into a romantic drama between Osment's mother (Hunt) and his damaged teacher (Spacey). It is Osment who plots to get the two of them together, and the film never really acknowledges that this would-be good deed is actually a selfish and self-serving action. But as a character piece, it's filled with wonderfully acted scenes between three terrific actors. The picture is filled with Oscar clip moments, and I mean that as a compliment. Pay It Forward is not a good movie, and it really shoots itself in the foot with that ending, but it's the kind of character-driven drama that quickly became an endangered species after 2001 and it's pretty entertaining in the present tense.
Moreover, as much as the film has become somewhat of a ghoulish horror story, it worked. By that I mean pretty much everyone knows what the phrase 'pay it forward' means. Thirteen years later, if you toss out the phrase 'pay it forward' in a casual conversation, there is a good chance that the other parties will know what you're talking about. Maybe they've heard of the movie, maybe they haven't. But they generally understand the core idea of paying it forward (IE - do a good deed for three people and have them do three good deeds to three others as payment). The film itself was an unmitigated disaster, not only earning terrible reviews and bombing at the box office, but also killing the momentum of all of its main participants. But if the purpose of a message movie is to spread its message, then it's hard to argue that Pay It Forward failed at its primary goal. Thirteen years later, Pay It Forward stands unique as an all-encompassing disaster for all involved, stopping several promising careers dead in their tracks with a single brutal blow. But people who were around back then still remember the movie and they remember its rather simple message for how to change the world. Come what may, that has to count for something.