[box cover]

I Am Sam: Platinum Series

Sean Penn was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in I Am Sam (2001), which should come as no surprise — the Academy, in its pedestrian, knee-jerk, narrow-minded way, has statistically nominated, and accoladed, more handicapped characters than any other demographically identifiable segment of humanity. The Oscars often tend to be more about obvious, mannered performances than subtle, powerful ones — and in the end, broad characterization usually wins (although, atypically, Penn lost this time around to Denzel Washington as a modern-day Mephistopheles in Training Day). The problem is that handicapped characters — while appealing to our natural sympathies — don't always make dynamic leads, which turns out to be this film's fatal flaw. Penn stars in I Am Sam as Sam Dawson, a mildly retarded adult who innocently gets a homeless woman pregnant and, nine months later, finds himself and the child abandoned by the callous mother. A low-wage employee at Starbucks, Sam raises the young Lucy (Dakota Fanning) by himself, with the occasional assistance of his good-hearted neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest). But when he finds himself accidentally busted for soliciting a prostitute, the local family services bureaucracy steps in, recommending seven-year-old Lucy for foster care. It's up to the ineffectual Sam to mount a defense, which he manages when high-powered lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) is guilted into taking his case pro bono — she has little interest in Sam or Lucy, but with some skillful litigation she manages raise doubts in the courtroom, and re-examine her own life in the process. There are several small things to recommend about I Am Sam. The actors are all proficient at their craft, presenting clearly defined personas with competing agendas. Writer/director Jessie Nelson helms the film with a hand-held verité style, offering several jump-cuts and montages. The score features several Beatles tunes covered by the likes of Eddie Vedder, Ben Harper, Sheryl Crow, and others, all of which have a pleasant, intimate quality. And the few courtroom scenes play very well, with a theatrical flourish at times but also illustrating of the sort of cutthroat tactics that can arise in family law. All of these moments contain small, welcome surprises.

*          *          *

Nonetheless, I Am Sam fails at its most crucial axis — it simply is not a compelling drama. It's one thing to pity Sam, and in fact it's nearly impossible not to. Everybody (who isn't an asshole at least) has a great deal of natural sympathy for the handicapped and the enormous struggles they face in their daily lives. But pity is one thing — it's quite another to invest in Sam as a leading character. And unless you find yourself moved to tears by glittery, sentimental greeting cards, you may find this unusual story a bit hard to digest. Yes, Sam is capable of loving his daughter, and any reasonable person would argue they should be in frequent contact. But the state attorneys in the film are often painted in a poor light, despite the fact that there is no way we can believe Sam would make a good single parent (he can't even make a latte). In fact, I Am Sam does something of a disservice to parenting, with its Beatles-esque notion that "all you need is love." You need love to be a mom or a dad, but you need a lot more to do it successfully. It also requires an adult's wisdom in the face of youthful exuberance, a knack for absurd negotiations, and the ability to be a role model that a child can admire and emulate. Being a parent is much more than being a friend, and these are things that retarded adults cannot provide to their children, no matter how much unconditional love they have to offer (and in fact, in some scenes little Lucy acts as the parent to Sam — a burden no young child should have to bear, but played falsely cute here.) I Am Sam pulls the viewer one way with Sam's desire for custody, but it's just as easy to see the other side, despite the treacly sentiment. As Lucy, young Dakota Fanning is talented, but the role is written with the child as a preposterous savant who shrewdly reads the subtle motivations of adults without batting one of those moon-sized baby eyes. Better is Pfeiffer as Rita — this should have been her film, and her story, as she is the only character who has the capacity to make choices and evolve, rather than remain static, vulnerable, and acted upon. But even this interesting part is barren, rarely rising above the level of a boilerplate hard-nosed female lawyer. And when she gets her big dramatic moment, it's delivering an incredibly sanctimonious speech about how difficult her life has been since her humiliating separation from her husband. Weepy, torrid, and played to the rafters, it's a hollow retort to a retarded man who likely cannot grasp the very adult nuances of getting divorced, growing older, and living with a nagging sense of personal failure. I Am Sam offers several very good actors in likable performances — unfortunately squandered on a saccharine script that defies judicious reason at every turn. But really, those Beatles tunes sound awfully nice, even if the Fab Four have a trifling relationship to this film at best. New Line's Platinum Series release features a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. Features include a soft-spoken commentary with director Jessie Nelson, the documentary "Becoming Sam" with a lot of self-congratulatory praise bandied about (42 min.), seven deleted/alternate scenes, the electronic press kit, and a theatrical trailer. Snap-case.
—JJB



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