St. Petersburg Times: Weekend

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Green eggs and baloney

I Am Sam is a movie with good intentions, but it's difficult for viewers to appreciate them while being hit over the head by its preposterous premise.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 24, 2002

[New Line]
Sean Penn plays a loving, although limited, father in I Am Sam.
Good intentions don't necessarily make good movies. I wonder how many viewers of Jessie Nelson's weepy melodrama I Am Sam will allow themselves to look beyond its noble stance about mentally challenged people to notice the desperate missteps made along the way.

Good movies sneak into your heart. I Am Sam furiously burrows at the same target like a fruit rat after a rotted orange on the other side of a fence. It's messy and frantic, with energy that wouldn't be wasted if the rat would just stop and think about the situation. Nelson has a story that, if allowed to play out its inherent drama, wouldn't require stooping to bathos. She's no rat, but after this film, The Story of Us, Corrina, Corrina and Stepmom, it's safe to say that Nelson knows her cheese.

Sean Penn overexerts himself to convince us he's playing Sam Dawson, a man with the mind of a 7-year-old, which happens to be the age of his daughter Lucy (Stepford child Dakota Fanning). Lucy was the result of Sam's sexual encounter with a homeless woman who bolted immediately after leaving the maternity ward. On the count of three, everybody say "awwwww."

In all fairness, Sam appears to be a loving, although limited parent, carrying Lucy to work at Starbucks and repeatedly reading the same bedtime story, Green Eggs and Ham. It's only a matter of time until Lucy catches up to her father's reading level, conveniently passing him on the word "different" in a textbook. Everything in I Am Sam comes with a waving red flag, as if the audience were also cognitively challenged.

Let's get one key plot problem out of the way first. There is no way Sam could leave that hospital without being assigned a counselor to assist his adjustment to single parenthood or, more likely, without being relieved of the responsibility of fatherhood, thereby ending the movie. Each problem Sam faces from that point bears the taint of falseness. He doesn't need to be going through these travails and, it becomes apparent, neither do we.

Sam doesn't need Lucy to be yanked away by an overzealous social worker (Loretta Devine) who mistakenly believes he's a sexual offender. There isn't any reason for him to be brushed off by type-A attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) until she learns a life lesson or two. Most of all, there is no need to put anyone through preposterous custody proceedings where anyone in the courtroom is a target of irrelevant cheap shots about their own poor parenting experiences.

And we don't need three -- count 'em, three -- clumsily manufactured climaxes that take the story far beyond what is needed for Sam literally to take a victory lap around the movie.

Nelson films this emotional contraption with intrusive handheld cameras, trying to shove a sense of reality into the proceedings. But imitating a documentary doesn't overcome the bogus touches: Sam is a bit of a Beatles savant, paving the way for alt-rockers covering that band's hits to do the director's communicating. I Am Sam also distracts us with the most blatant product placements ever; Starbucks, Biz and 7-11 deserve co-star credits.

Every adult in the movie (except lovable Sam, of course) is flinty, cynical or withdrawn, doing the wrong things for the right reasons until they all collapse into a heap of humbled goo. Penn stays above the mess, stirring it with a performance that, while obviously well-researched, becomes a repetitive series of tics and whines, followed by lucidity that comes out of left field. When Sam invokes Kramer vs. Kramer on the witness stand, the true source of Penn's inspiration becomes clear: He's doing Dustin Hoffman as Rain Man.

Nelson adds a measure of credibility to her film by casting three mentally challenged actors as Sam's pals. Their affable performances shame the strained efforts of mentally efficient actors feigning retardation. Focusing on Sam's inner circle instead of his outer oppression might lead to a more compelling film. Instead, we have one more well-intended brick in the road to movie hell. I do not like it, I Am Sam.

I Am Sam

  • Grade: D
  • Director: Jessie Nelson
  • Cast: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Wiest, Richard Schiff, Laura Dern
  • Screenplay: Kristine Johnson, Jessie Nelson
  • Rating: PG-13; profanity, sexual situations
  • Running time: 132 min.

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