½*/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Doug Hutchison
screenplay by Kristine Johnson & Jessie Nelson
directed by Jessie Nelson
by Walter Chaw I Am Sam's premise is a strange one: a mentally retarded* man (titular Sam, played by Sean Penn) impregnates a homeless woman he has invited to stay with him. After giving birth to the impossibly precocious Lucy (Dakota Fanning), the vagrant mom vamooses ("I never wanted this! I just wanted a place to sleep!"), leaving Sam solely responsible for the raising of the child. With the help of eccentric piano-playing recluse Dianne Wiest (perhaps fulfilling a bizarre ambition to play Madame Sousatzka), Sam learns an infant's feeding schedule (by timing it to late-night Nickelodeon programming), shops for diapers, and realizes that he needs to find daycare if he wants to keep his job tidying sugar cosies at the local Starbucks. (Feel-good, politically-correct bullshit being a saltlick for corporate sponsors, Starbucks, International House of Pancakes, Target, and Pizza Hut all helped fund I Am Sam.) When Child Services finally collects Lucy into protective custody on her seventh birthday, Sam gets frosty type-A lawyer Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer) to take on his cause pro bono. In the process, of course, Sam's infectious goodness teaches Rita, and us, a little about what's really important in life.
I Am Sam might be the dumbest, most manipulative, most ingratiating film of the year. It would be altogether astonishing but for the fact that this is the second film directed by screenwriter Jessie Nelson, the rabid hack behind such breach births as The Story of Us and Stepmom. I Am Sam is the kind of unconscionable dreck that makes villains of heroes and causes of calamities. There are at least twenty things that happen during the course of the film that, by themselves, would warrant little Lucy being taken away by the state and placed in the loving foster home presided over by a weepy but otherwise competent Laura Dern. Lucy, for instance, easily talks Sam into kidnapping her from a supervised visitation; Sam tells a shrink that he has no confidence in his ability to provide for the child; Sam tries to recruit a prostitute to be Lucy's mother; Sam has a history of taking in homeless people; Sam has trouble being on time (bringing up the question of how many visits Lucy's had with a paediatrician); it doesn't occur to Sam to provide a tutor for Lucy; and Sam's inability to adapt to minor changes in his routine makes him volatile and dangerous. In short, Sam is every bit as unfit as the evil system (represented by Richard Schiff and Loretta Devine) would paint him to be. More disturbingly, Rita (Pfeiffer, in an embarrassing, eye-rolling burlesque) bats her eyes at Sam when he tries on one of her husband's suits, thus confirming that there's nothing sexier than a man with a 7-year-old's mental capacity wearing your husband's clothes?
Aside from the demonizing of Child Services for wishing to save a child from a clearly dangerous situation, aside from the eruption of a wholly inappropriate sexual subplot, aside from the sad realization that if a seven-year-old is really competent to make responsible life choices then Lucy's requests should just be honoured, and aside from the sickening instinct to over-score and over-sentimentalize the retarded, The Other Sister-style, there is not one remotely plausible or palatable moment in I Am Sam. The film is predictable to the extreme, drops the Dianne Wiest character abruptly and unceremoniously at a critical juncture, and allows Mary Steenburgen a cameo as another crinkly-eyed Earth mother just aching to fold you to her wizened teat. At 134 minutes, I Am Sam is simultaneously bloated and hasty, its ending neither coming anywhere near soon enough nor bothering to make a shred of sense when it does.
The only way to look at I Am Sam in any sort of positive light (or even just to begin to understand it) is as a subversive jab at the Academy--Sean Penn's embittered statement that despite his remarkable work in Dead Man Walking, Casualties of War, Bad Boys, and so on, his best chance at Oscar recognition is by playing a retarded man in a dim-witted populist entertainment teaching his saucer-eyed moppet Beatles' homilies, like "all you need is love." Because Penn's The Pledge is one of my favourite films of this year, I'm giving him this benefit of a doubt: Glad you got your Oscar nod, Sean, stick it to the man. If only you'd also thought to gain fifty pounds, die of an incurable wasting disease, and be a shrimp farmer, well, son, you'd be a shoo-in. Originally published: January 25, 2002.
by Bill Chambers I wanted to like I Am Sam, as its subject, broadly speaking, is not-undeserving of the motion-picture treatment, but ultimately I preferred browsing the special features of its Platinum Series DVD release from New Line Home Video. The disc contains a sturdy 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen version of the film that's up to the studio's high standards--I think New Line has already raised the bar to its peak as far as these things go, so I tend to take their transfers for granted now and concentrate on the bonus material. I Am Sam's 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks are spunky, though the menus (also 5.1) carry more oomph than the movie itself; this is more or less a stereo mix with rear-channel detours into ambient audio.
The quantity of extras is perhaps a little low for a New Line boutique title. The star supplement is the 43-minute "Becoming Sam", which compiles quality interviews with all of the principal cast and crew (including cinematographer Elliot Davis, the victim of a ridiculous dye job), footage of L.A. Goal (the centre for the mentally-challenged where director Jessie Nelson and co-screenwriter Kristine Johnson conducted research for the project), and reactions from the famous musicians asked to cover Beatles songs for I Am Sam. (Rufus Wainwright appears courtesy of Oxygen, we're told.) Seven deleted/alternate scenes with optional comments from Nelson are just more of the same, though the last, called "Unexpected Happenings," concludes with a nice improvised conundrum of Knock Knock jokes.
A mediocre screen-specific commentary by Nelson plus I Am Sam's theatrical press kit (divided into three sections, it is far more self-congratulatory than the DVD's other supplements, with Nelson patting herself on the back for her ability to remain "non-judgmental" while at L.A. Goal) and trailer (16x9; 5.1)--which is much better than the film it promotes--round out the standard portion of the disc. ROM users can access a stylish script-to-screen interface and a host of weblinks. Originally published: June 13, 2002.