`I Am Sam' strikes note after note of insincerity

Review: Sean Penn plays his mentally challenged character with predictability.

January 25, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

I Am Sam has an attitude that's even more irritating than holier-than-thou: It's more-human-than-thou.

Sean Penn plays a single father with the intellect of a 7-year-old who battles to retain custody of his picture-perfect daughter (Dakota Fanning, who provides a relentless series of Kodak moments) after her intelligence begins to outstrip his, and a social worker recommends that she be taken away.

In the '60s and '70s, such plays and movies as Equus told audiences that mental patients had more poetry and soul than less-troubled people. I Am Sam depicts the small world of Sam and his friends as an oasis of genuine feeling in an uncaring world. But when it comes to emotional authenticity, this movie runs dry.

Penn's performance is the most predictable and grating of his career; Sam's focus and franticness are equally overblown. Penn wants to express the character's struggle to function as a father, but he can't help betraying his own efforts to appear simple and lovable. In scenes with members of LA Goal, a Los Angeles-based organization for the developmentally disabled, their naturalness and underlying calm give the lie to his performance. Penn always lets you see him sweat.

Michelle Pfeiffer fares little better as Rita, the lawyer who argues Sam's case before the court. At first it's fun to see Pfeiffer parody a svelte gal caught up in an L.A. careerist lifestyle - a smart, super-competent woman so determined to be crisp and cool (and so bad at it) that any surprise causes her to fan herself with her hands. But soon Rita realizes that she must learn from Sam's supposedly pure wisdom and slow down and simplify her existence. She enrolls in Life Lessons 101.

How melodramatic is this film? Take the way Rita discredits a fellow female professional, a social-services psychiatrist, on the stand. The shrink testifies that Sam confessed to making horrible mistakes with his little girl. Rita asks this expert witness whether she felt she'd made horrible mistakes after her own son overdosed.

And so it goes. One by one, the men and women hoping to separate Sam from his daughter are revealed to be humorless hypocrites, including Richard Schiff (a marvel on TV's The West Wing) as a glowering public attorney. Tremendous actors diminish themselves for what they must see as a good cause, including Dianne Wiest as Sam's helpful neighbor, an agoraphobic music teacher; Loretta Devine as the social worker; and Laura Dern as the girl's court-appointed foster mother.

Even Beatles music gets trivialized. Because Sam and his friends are obsessed with the Fab Four (the filmmakers share the obsession, down to aping the Abbey Road record cover), the soundtrack consists mostly of cover versions of Beatle tunes. They come off as so much darling kids' stuff.

The director, co-writer and co-producer, Jessie Nelson, lets the movie get away from her even as a piece of would-be uplift. Behind the camera as well as in front of it, Nelson has chosen such talented collaborators as cinematographer Elliot Davis and editor Richard Chew. But Nelson has devised an annoying, unmoored shooting and cutting style. As flibberty-jibberty as the first episodes of Homicide, this style lacks the ruthless integrity that might pull us inside Sam's mind.

The film is so busy that every minute is exhausting. It's as if the filmmakers were idealistic teen-agers afflicted with a group case of Attention Deficit Disorder.

I Am Sam

Starring Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer

Directed by Jessie Nelson

Rated PG-13 (adult language)

Released by New Line

Running time 132 minutes

Sun score *

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