Undone by its best intentions, “I Am Sam” is an especially insipid example of the Hollywood message movie. With Sean Penn leading a large cast as a mentally handicapped man raising a young daughter on his own as well as fighting an impervious child-care bureaucracy, it’s tempting to consider what a meatier — and doubtless more despairing — film Penn the director would have culled from the same dramatic situation. Here, Penn the actor is constrained to a purely technical, behavioral perf as Sam, with helmer Jessie Nelson making the most elementary possible movie from a complex welter of emotions, human demands and societal responsibilities. Any early fascination with what dimensions Penn can bring to a role that, by definition, limits his extraordinary range of expression quickly fades; this, combined with pic’s sentimental bathos and a third act that never seems to end, will subdue B.O. prospects in a marketplace suddenly packed with human-scale dramas.
Seven years after her first feature, the more nuanced drama-comedy, “Corrina, Corrina,” Nelson continues an apparent fascination with single dads struggling to raise an only daughter. Here, Nelson and co-writer Kristine Johnson have badly veered off into a near-parody of ultra-politically correct storytelling, in which single parenthood is lionized (and even finally found preferable over an alternative two-parent family option). The movie assumes, in a thoroughly unearned way, a total acceptance of its shaky premise — that a man like Sam, with the mental abilities of a 7-year-old, is the best possible parent because he has more love for his child than anyone else.
Sam, working at a Starbucks, arrives after g.f. Rebecca (Caroline Keenan) has given birth to Lucy. Minutes out of the hospital, Rebecca flees at a bus stop, leaving Lucy in Sam’s awkward arms. He fitfully settles into a routine while raising the baby, but it’s an uphill slog, enough so that even his agoraphobic apartment neighbor, Annie (Dianne Wiest), can’t help but notice and lend some help.
Still, the point of the first section is that Sam can manage. Besides, he has the support of a quartet of pals (Brad Allen Silverman, Joseph Rosenberg, Stanley Desantis, Doug Hutchinson) and is able to pass along his cheerful obsession with the Beatles to his child, who seems to get the Fab Four right away. What could go wrong?
Actually, just about everything: By the time Lucy (Dakota Fanning) is 7, the trouble really begins. Though Lucy is presented as impossibly, even irritatingly, precocious, she is touching when she realizes her mental development and reading skills are leaving Sam behind.
After raising this genuine red flag, the movie becomes purely manipulative by allowing some trumped up charges to send Sam’s problems, and the movie’s, spiraling out of control, setting up a contrived battle of good guys and bad guys.
The lengthy middle section, in which Lucy is yanked away from Sam by Child Services and Sam fights back by hiring uber-lawyer Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer), amounts to a chain of trumped-up conflicts. Rita’s high-driving Century City lifestyle makes Pfeiffer look like a high-strung action figure going nowhere fast, a gross caricature of the self-made power woman so busy she has no time for her husband or child.
Of course, against all odds, Sam draws Rita to his cause to get Lucy back, but he gets a hammering from nasty attorney Turner (Richard Schiff), whose argument that, just maybe, Sam isn’t exactly the ideal dad to raise a child alone is treated by the script with contempt.
Finally, it appears that Lucy has found a new, nurturing home with Randy (Laura Dern) and her strangely off-screen husband, but this potentially interesting turn becomes just another piece of manipulation, as Randy can’t help but observe that Sam — despite some highly erratic and questionable behavior — is the most loving and devoted parent Lucy could have.
Penn’s perf feels like the by-product of research, which isn’t always a good thing. Those sad Penn eyes, so evocative in his past work, are dulled here, and so is the rest of his acting instrument in the service of a physically precise duplication of a mentally handicapped man. In a way, Edward Norton’s turn in “The Score,” in which his thief used a mental handicap as a disguise, gave the trade secret away when it comes to this sort of performance. Penn does a fantastic duplication, but it chokes off almost everything this great actor does best.
Except for the energetic Dern, thesps in the mentally able roles don’t rise above the symbolic types they play, and the problem is most acute with Pfeiffer, who has rarely looked so uncomfortable on screen. In a bizarre, coincidental holiday movie season side note, Rita declares — like Tom Cruise’s David in “Vanilla Sky” and Will Smith’s Muhammad Ali — who her favorite Beatle is.
The Beatles theme extends to the soundtrack, an array of exceptionally weak covers of nine Lennon-McCartney songs. Exorbitant rights precluded using the originals, but the choice of covers utterly clashes with Sam’s adoration of the authentic Beatles, and it only compounds the pic’s ersatz nature. Elliot Davis’ deliberately shaky, zoom-in-zoom-out lensing was done long ago on “NYPD Blue,” and better.
I Am Sam
Production: A New Line Cinema release of a Bedford Falls Co./Red Fish, Blue Fish Films production. Produced by Jessie Nelson, Richard Solomon, Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick. Executive producers, Claire Rudnick Polstein, Michael De Luca, David Scott Rubin. Co-producer, Barbara A. Hall. Directed by Jessie Nelson. Screenplay, Kristine Johnson, Nelson.
Crew: Camera (FotoKem color, Deluxe prints), Elliot Davis; editor, Richard Chew; music, John Powell; production designer, Aaron Osborne; art director, Erin Cochran; set designers, Stephanie J. Gordon, Glenn Rivers; set decorator, Jennifer Gentile; costume designer, Susie DeSanto; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Douglas Axtell; supervising sound editors, Paul Timothy Carden, Joe Milner; associate producer, Lisa Campbell; assistant director, Campbell; casting, Mary Gail Artz, Barbara Cohen. Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, Nov. 28, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 132 MIN.
With: Sam Dawson - Sean Penn
Rita - Michelle Pfeiffer
Lucy - Dakota Fanning
Annie - Dianne Wiest
Margaret Calgrove - Loretta Devine
Turner - Richard Schiff
Randy Carpenter - Laura Dern
Brad - Brad Allan Silverman
Joe - Joseph Rosenberg
Robert - Stanley Desantis
Ifty - Doug Hutchinson
With: Mary Steenburgen, Caroline Keenan, Chase Mackenzie Bebak, Mason Lucero, Scott Paulin.
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"Daddy, did God mean for you to be like this, or was it an accident? That's little Lucy Dawson, asking her father why he isn't quite like other people. She's a bright kid and figures out the answer herself, and when a classmate at grade school asks, "Why does your father act like a retard?" she explains, "He is." "I Am Sam" stars Sean Penn as Lucy's dad, Sam, who has the IQ of a 7-year-old but is trying to raise the daughter he fathered with a homeless woman. The mother disappeared right after giving birth (her farewell words: "All I wanted was a place to sleep"), and now Sam is doing his best to cope, although sometimes Lucy has to help him with her homework. Eventually Lucy decides to stop learning so she won't get ahead of her dad. "I don't want to read if you can't," she tells him.
Sam loves the Beatles (his favorite is George). He named his daughter after "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," and has learned most of life's lessons from Beatles songs. The lesson "I Am Sam" wants to teach us is, "All you need is love." This is not quite strictly true. Sam loves his daughter more than anyone else, and she loves him, but it will take more than love for him to see her through grade school and adolescence and out into the world. Since the movie does not believe this, it has a serious disagreement with most of the audience.
Sean Penn does as well as can be expected with Sam, but it is painful to see an actor of his fire and range locked into a narrow range of emotional and intellectual responses. Not long ago a veteran moviegoer told me that when he sees an actor playing a mentally retarded person, he is reminded of a performer playing "Lady of Spain" on an accordion: The fingers fly, but are the song or the instrument worthy of the effort? The kind of performance Penn delivers in "I Am Sam," which may look hard, is easy, compared, say, to his amazing work in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown." As Robert Kohner observes in his Variety review: "In a way, Edward Norton's turn in "The Score" in which his thief used a mental handicap as a disguise, gave the trade secret away when it comes to this sort of performance." The movie sets up the Department of Children and Family Services and its attorney as the villains when they take Lucy away from Sam and try to place her with a foster family. The heroine is a high-velocity Beverly Hills lawyer named Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer), who takes Sam's case on a pro bono basis, to prove to the other people in her office that she's not a selfish bitch. This character and performance would be perfect in an edgy comedy, but exist in a parallel universe to the world of this film.
Sam has the kinds of problems that come up in story conferences more than in life. For example, he's sitting in a diner when an attractive young woman smiles at him. He smiles back. She comes over and asks him if he would like to have a good time. He says he sure would. Then a cop pounces and arrests him for frequenting a prostitute. Back at the station, the cop admits, "This is the first time in 19 years I actually believe a guy who says he didn't know she was a hooker." Hey, it's the first time in history that a man has been arrested on sex charges for talking to a woman in a diner before any clothes have come off, money has changed hands, or services have been discussed.
The movie climaxes in a series of courtroom scenes, which follow the time-honored formulas for such scenes, with the intriguing difference that this time the evil prosecutor (Richard Schiff) seems to be making good sense. At one point he turns scornfully to the Pfeiffer character and says, "This is an anecdote for you at some luncheon, but I'm here every day, You're out the door, but you know who I see come back? The child." Well, he's right, isn't he? The would-be adoptive mother, played by Laura Dern, further complicates the issue by not being a cruel child-beater who wants the monthly state payments, but a loving, sensitive mother who would probably be great for Lucy. Sam more or less understands this, but does the adoptive mother? As the film ends, the issue is in doubt.
"I Am Sam" is aimed at audiences who will relate to the heart-tugging relationship between Sam and Lucy (and young Dakota Fanning does a convincing job as the bright daughter). Every device of the movie's art is designed to convince us Lucy must stay with Sam, but common sense makes it impossible to go the distance with the premise. You can't have heroes and villains when the wrong side is making the best sense.