I.O.U. and U. and U.

Shell game: Haley Joel Osment in Pay It Forward.Photo: David James

Pay It Forward is a heavy heaping of inspirationalism that manages to work in child abuse, single-motherhood, violence in the schools, homelessness, wife battering, the effects of divorce on children, alcoholism – and that’s just for starters. It has the ungainly heft of a political-party platform. You can tell from this fable’s drawn-out deliberateness that something momentous is being imparted to us, but what? A fable should be lucid in its meanings. With its smorgasbord of moralizings, Pay It Forward is a confusing welter of sentiment. Our compassion becomes gridlocked.

Back for another tour of duty as a precocious junior sufferer who sees into the hearts of suffering adults is Haley Joel Osment as Trevor McKinney, a seventh-grade latchkey child whose single mother, Arlene (Helen Hunt), a Vegas barmaid and casino change girl, is not very effectively fighting off her drinking problem. Trevor’s new social-studies teacher, Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey), whose face bears burn scars, is hypercontrolled and reclusive and prone to uttering words in class requiring the use of a dictionary for his students to grasp. (Ever helpful, he hands out pocket dictionaries for this purpose.) He offers up to his class his traditional beginning-of-the-school-year extra-credit assignment – Think of an idea to change our world and put it into action – and darned if Trevor doesn’t come up with a doozy: If a favor is done to you, don’t pay it back to the donor; pay it forward to three people in need, who in turn help three others in need, and so on until the world is linked by a chain of do-goodness.

The film’s idea of doing good is solidly Hollywood: Our first example – which the story, confusedly, flashes back from – comes when a newspaper reporter (Jay Mohr), whose Mustang has been totalled, finds himself the instant recipient of a flashy new Jaguar from a well-to-do passerby. It’s unclear to me how bestowing a Jaguar on somebody results in a better world, except perhaps for Jaguar dealers, but one accepts this gesture as the purest case of showbiz altruism. Trevor’s first act of generosity is to bring home a derelict (James Caviezel) and feed him, and no doubt if this film is a hit, its producers will want to follow suit and pay forward some of its gross points to the homeless.

It’s not enough that Trevor is a sad, spunky kid with an ache for a happy family life; he must also be turned into an angelic martyr whose fate seems rather farfetchedly aligned with Christian theology (as if this film needed any more bloat). Director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Leslie Dixon, adapting a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, play into the fashionable movie trend of portraying children as adults-in-miniature, and vice versa. Trevor isn’t just precocious; despite his tantrums and action toys, he’s practically a spirit guide, while his mother and Eugene are blighted by the badness of the big bad world and their own childlike fears. Arlene can’t cope without Trevor’s interventions, while Eugene, whom the boy tries to set up with his mother, is so creepily recessive that he seems one degree away from pod-personhood. Eugene’s scars are, of course, both literal and symbolic, and it’s nice to see Kevin Spacey playing someone with a quiet vulnerability for a change; but we are asked to mourn this character’s benighted life without ever getting much of a life to mourn.

The sympathy between Eugene and Trevor might have had some resonance if the film had pared down the metaphors and mythology and instead shown us how a gifted teacher can inspire a student and make a difference in his life no matter how dismal the circumstances.

But why settle for The Corn Is Green or Dead Poets Society when you can create your very own New Testament? Pay It Forward offers itself up as a religious experience couched in the vernacular of self-help psychobabble: These people suffer because they won’t allow themselves to be loved, they can’t always see what they need, and so on. The failures that result from Trevor’s pay-it-forward campaign occur because we don’t have enough faith in each other. We’re not ready for such goodness. Or are we? By film’s end, the movement seems to be catching on, especially, natch, in L.A. Is it too late for the presidential candidates to appropriate this movie? A chicken in every pot and a Jag in every garage. Pass it on.

The phenomenal cast of The Yards – including Mark Wahlberg, James Caan, Joaquin Phoenix, Ellen Burstyn, Charlize Theron, and Faye Dunaway – creates a force field that keeps you watching even when the film turns into a rather overfamiliar reworking of On the Waterfront. The young writer-director James Gray, whose first, crime-based film, about Russian Jewish immigrants, was Little Odessa, returns to the New York mob scene for this depiction of corruption and family ties in Queens. He has become a highly practiced and powerful filmmaker who understands that the underworld is as rife with shades of gray as any other locale; no one in this film can be pegged at first or even second glance, and that gives the action a psychological density uncommon to the crime-film genre. James Caan’s Frank, for example, who runs a payola-powered electronics-parts company and who is deeply in cahoots with his borough’s politicos, is by no means a cartoon meanie. He understands the indecency of his enterprise and tries to save his ex-con nephew, Mark Wahlberg’s Leo, from becoming a part of it. When violence and betrayal erupt in this film, it’s doubly shocking because we can see how, for all these characters, there was another way.

Something of a classic manqué, The Yards has the weight and import of a great movie without ever achieving greatness – but you’re left with something anyway: the freezing look on Caan’s face when he realizes he must become the monster he didn’t want to be; the sorrowfulness of Ellen Burstyn as Wahlberg’s ailing mother, baffled into bleariness by her son’s misfortunes; the stiff-necked pride of Joaquin Phoenix as Caan’s strong-arm man, his thick, jet-black hair like the manifestation of a deeper darkness within.

In brief: Fernando Trueba’s Calle 54 is a staged concert documentary featuring twelve separate Latin-jazz performances, and for each one it’s difficult to resist rising out of your seat and moving to the music. Many world-class artists play their hearts out in this film, including the late, great Tito Puente; the ravishing pianist Eliane Elías, who plays barefooted; Chucho Valdés and his father Bebo; and Gato Barbieri, who explains that playing music makes him feel free. He didn’t have to tell us.

I.O.U. and U. and U.