Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jessie Nelson

Cast: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Wiest, Richard Schiff, Laura Dern

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for language)

Running Time: 2:12

Release Date: 12/28/01 (limited); 1/25/02 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

The tearjerker genre relies on predictable, formulaic melodrama. I am not a big fan of such endeavors. Fortunately, they are occasionally occupied by actors with far more talent than the material deserves. I Am Sam is exactly that kind of movie. Watching it, I knew and anticipated every trick the screenplay would pull. I felt the utter bias and manipulation as the movie constantly told the audience, "Don’t like this person" or "Isn’t this sad?" The cut-out characters exist solely on a plot level. Whatever depth they may show is only present to elicit or resolve unnecessary conflict. Yet the cast seems so completely oblivious to the flaws and give such conviction to their roles, we’re left contemplating the possibilities that could have arisen had the cast been given a much more challenging script. The ultimate result is a movie that’s watchable but never close to engrossing.

Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) is a huge Beatles fan. He works at Starbucks. He is a single father to a bright daughter named Lucy (Dakota Fanning), whom he named after "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." He also has the mental capacity of a seven-year-old, and Lucy has just reached her seventh birthday. Until this point in her life, Sam has been a competent father to Lucy, thanks to the help of Annie (Dianne Wiest), an intelligent, agoraphobic neighbor and a group of mentally challenged friends. But as Lucy’s capabilities begin to exceed Sam’s, she starts intentionally holding herself back in her studies and becomes subtly antagonistic about her father’s condition with her friends. After a misunderstanding with a prostitute, the Department of Children and Family Services takes Lucy away, under the belief that Sam cannot properly care for Lucy anymore. Sam searches for lawyers and finds Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), a must-win type with a few domestic troubles of her own. After much persistence on Sam’s part, Rita decides to take his case pro bono to prove a point to her colleagues.

The screenplay by Kristine Johnson and Jessie Nelson centers on big scenes—the emotional breakdown or the quiet heartbreaking moments or the courtroom grandstanding—but none of them ever feel sincere. From the friends that seem to exist only to provide some element of quirkiness to the surprise character developments leading to easily resolvable obstacles, every element of I Am Sam tries to force the audience to think or feel one way. Take, as example, a courtroom scene where Rita and the prosecutor, played by Richard Schiff, have a personal argument while the trial is taking place. The prosecutor even gives this speech about how he comes into work every day and she waltzes into the court, wins, and leaves without any regard to what the consequences may be and so on. Would something like this ever happen? Would a lawyer really fight a point so trivial and unprofessional in the setting of a courtroom? Making matters worse is the fact that it’s all played perfectly authentic. Director Nelson employs a documentary/docudrama style—all handheld camera work with unmotivated zooms—that try to give the feel of reality, but it’s a lost cause with this material.

With such strong performances, the actors are perhaps the only thing to give the appearance of reality. Sean Penn is definitely one of the best actors working today and he is quite choosy when it comes to finding work, so seeing him take on even the simplest role can be a joy. Here he is completely lost in the character; it’s a total conversion of a performance. It’s not his best work, to be sure, but it is a noteworthy performance on an already impressive résumé. Michelle Pfeiffer is equally impressive in a performance that relies on holding everything in. Newcomer Dakota Fanning is sweet and effective as Lucy. Other cast members are notably recognizable. Dianne Wiest is solid as the neighbor, and Laura Dern appears as Lucy’s foster mother in a performance that shows that she must have put a lot of effort into a back-story with her character.

Unfortunately, most of these characters end up feeling like devices for the plot. That’s the essential problem with I Am Sam. So much of the movie exists for the sole purpose of driving its plot and culling some sort of emotion from the audience, that ultimately, you can feel just how empty it is. Sure the strength of these performances cannot be ignored, but it’s a real shame to see such conviction wasted on something so predictably cloying.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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