I Am Sam (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Never trust a serious drama that uses a line from a Dr. Seuss book as its title. I Am Sam (inspired by a line from "Green Eggs and Ham"), despite boasting interesting character relationships, stumbles and falls because of a storyline that consistently overlooks real-life situations when it isn't pandering to the needs of those who want every screenplay to be constructed from cliches. Of course, there's also the problem of overt manipulation - subtlety is not one of this film's hallmarks - but that's to be expected from any motion picture that so obviously wants to be regarded as a tear-jerker.

Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) is a mentally-retarded forty year-old man with autistic tendencies who earns a living by working as a janitor at a local Starbucks. It would be difficult enough for Sam, whose mental capacity is equal to that of a seven year-old, to survive on his own, but he has a daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning), who was the product of a one-night stand. At age seven, Lucy is smarter than Sam, and, as a result, fiercely protective of him. But, when the Department of Child Services hears about the situation, they take Lucy away from her father, believing that Sam cannot effectively care for her. Needing a lawyer to represent him in the custody hearing, Sam approaches high-profile attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), who initially brushes him off. But Sam is persistent, and, in an attempt to prove to her colleagues that she has a heart, she agrees to represent him pro bono. And, in the process of preparing for Sam's case, Rita begins to bridge the gulf that has developed between her and her son.

With a better plot, I Am Sam might work, but it glosses over reality on so many occasions that it's hard to take seriously. Despite the high-profile nature of the cast, I had the feeling that I was watching one of those made-for-TV weepers that show up with alarming regularity on cable TV's Lifetime Network. From the supposedly heart-wrenching drama of the separation of father and daughter to the courtroom scenes, this is pure soap opera - not a promising way for Jessie Nelson to return to directing after a seven-year absence (her previous credit, which was her feature debut, was Corrina, Corrina). She is clearly relying upon audiences being swept away on a tide of emotion so overwhelming that concerns about the intelligence and logic of the movie become irrelevant. Unfortunately, I Am Sam doesn't possess anything close to the degree of power necessary for that to happen.

Sean Penn's portrayal of Sam screams "Oscar contender" with a voice that's dissonant. New Line Cinema is clearly hoping that Penn's name, beloved by the Academy, in conjunction with the image of a mentally retarded character, another Academy favorite, will result in a nomination. From a strategy perspective, it's sound reasoning, but the problem is that Penn's performance is no better than average. He doesn't do anything interesting or unique with Sam - it's a by-the-book portrayal of a retarded individual. The actor could probably do this kind of thing in his sleep. Opposite him, Michelle Pfeiffer is equally perfunctory in her approach to her character. Rita is a stereotypical career-driven woman who has alienated her son in her pursuit of power, wealth, and material goods. Like Penn, she doesn't give a bad performance, but also offers nothing beyond the bare minimum required by the role. The only standout is Dakota Fanning, who, in her first significant motion picture part, manages to be irrepressibly cute without becoming irritating.

The one aspect of the film worth lauding is the character interaction. Nelson and her co-writer, Kristine Johnson, are adept at building I Am Sam's two key relationships - those between Sam and Lucy, and Sam and Rita. Unfortunately, the filmmakers' aptitude in this area does not extend to the overall production, which mutes the effectiveness of this interaction by smothering it in cloying, unconvincing melodrama. Even the message comes across as muddled - if "all you need is love" to care for a child (Sam, being a Beatles fan, quotes their songs incessantly), why did I find myself agreeing with the State that Sam, despite having the best intentions, does not have the capacity to care for his daughter? Nelson stacks the deck by developing our emotional investment in Sam, yet, at the last minute, she seems to back away from him in an attempt to inject a bit of reality into her largely fanciful screenplay. The transition, if it can be called that, is clumsily handled, and makes us uncertain what her feelings are about the current social system. Then, after backpeddling for a while, she changes direction again in a mad dash for a cathartic conclusion. This is the kind of story I would love to see British director Ken Loach tackle. He would strip away all of the tear-producing manipulation and get to the heart of the matter - something that I Am Sam, despite its high-profile cast and end-of-the-year release slot, is unable to do.

I Am Sam (United States, 2001)

Director: Jessie Nelson
Cast: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Wiest, Loretta Devine, Laura Dern
Screenplay: Kristine Johnson & Jessie Nelson
Cinematography: Elliot Davis
U.S. Distributor: New Line Cinema
Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 2001-12-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1