The standard biopic plotline based on the life story of Carl Brashear follows the uneducated sharecropper's son (Gooding) as he braves 1950s-era racial discrimination for the right to risk his life in one of the most dangerous occupations in the armed services. At the Navy's elite salvage school in New Jersey master diver Billy Sunday (Robert De Niro) gives Brashear the "Officer and a Gentleman" treatment singling him out for special punishment at the request of the base's insane racist commander (Hal Holbrook). Will the hero overcome the obstacles in his path to becoming a master diver himself?
Gooding's glowing likability is the main factor keeping the film's saintly conception of Brashear from getting annoying fast. The one-dimensional character lacks a single flaw for an actor to grab onto but Gooding's enthusiasm is contagious (remember that Oscar speech?) and he gets surprising mileage out of it. De Niro's trademark intensity is put to only minimal use in a variation of the cantankerous drill sergeant part familiar from half the military flicks ever made.
George Tillman Jr. ("Soul Food") delivers some effective if obvious action-drama in the film's first half which chronicles Brashear's tireless efforts to earn his Navy flippers. Unfortunately Scott Marshall Smith's screenplay gets a bit water-logged dealing with the hero's subsequent career both above and below the waves. (One key development closely parallels John Wayne's role as a Navy flier in another true story 1957's "The Wings of Eagles.) All this sets up a particularly weak courtroom finale reminiscent of another slew of movies including "A Few Good Men" and "Rules of Engagement."
Based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde "Pay It Forward" is about a boy named Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) who is inspired by his social studies teacher Mr. Simonet (Kevin Spacey) and comes up with a school project based on a simple concept: Don't wait to pay back good deeds; pay them forward three times over. One of the boy's attempts to do good includes bringing his teacher together with his alcoholic single mother Arlene (Helen Hunt).
This movie has all the makings of Oscar. Two-time Oscar winner Spacey is solid as usual and escapes into the role of Mr. Simonet whose facial and bodily burn scars hide a tragic secret. Oscar winner Hunt gets a chance to really flex her acting muscles and she does. Her scenes with young Osment are especially gripping. But the revelation in "Pay It Forward" is Osment. This boy was born to act and he improves upon his already impressive turn in "The Sixth Sense." It would be nice to see Osment win Oscar this year and Spacey and Hunt will surely receive nominations. Providing strong supporting work are Angie Dickinson Jay Mohr and James Caviezel and Jon Bon Jovi appears in a fortunately brief cameo.
Mimi Leder ("Deep Impact " "The Peacemaker") takes a break from action films and slows it down way down with "Pay It Forward." Her foray into the non-action realm is shaky. Some of the scenes are out of place and take away from the overall effectiveness of the film. One major and surprising plot point is heartbreaking unnecessary and executed in a contrived manner. And the ending is disjointed from the feel of the rest of the film. Fortunately for Leder she has an amazing cast and a strong story from author Hyde.