i am sam (2001) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for langauge
Running Time: 132 min.

Cast: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Wiest, Laura Dern, Mary Steenburgen, Brent Spiner (cameo), Elle Fanning (cameo)
Director: Jessie Nelson
Screenplay: Kristine Johnson, Jessie Nelson

Review published July 18, 2002

I Am Sam is one of those films you want to like, because you like the characters, but the filmmakers refuse to stick them in a good film.  It's almost as if writer/director Jessie Nelson (Corrina Corrina, To the Moon Alice) thinks that the building blocks of a film starts with making us care for the characters and whatever happens after that is bound to work.  This has been shown to work in character pieces, however I Am Sam isn't so much a character study than one of caricature.  Every person in the film is a colorful eccentric, from those with mental disabilities to successful lawyers and musicians.  In the world of I Am Sam, everyone is screwed up in a major way, and the lesson it tries to draw is that if everyone is an inept basket-case, why not let a retarded man raise a kid?  With such a flimsy premise in mind, I Am Sam is a paint-by-numbers custody case drama that some might feel different because it paints different colors than what's intended for the numbers, yet they still always paint within the lines of predictability.

Sean Penn (Sweet and Lowdown, U Turn) was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Sam Dawson, a mentally impaired man with the mentality of a 7-year-old, who impregnates a homeless woman that abandons the daughter and Sam, leaving him alone in the raising of the little girl.  The girl is named Lucy  Diamond Dawson (Fanning, Uptown Girls) because Sam is a huge Beatles fanatic, and Sam raises her until she reaches the age of 7, and with Sam's mental age, Lucy will soon be smarter than he is.  This concerns the child welfare department, who see Sam as mentally incapable of providing the kind of care Lucy needs in order to grow into adulthood, and soon Lucy is swiftly taken away to a foster home.  At the urging of his friends, Sam seeks legal counsel, and unknowingly goes to a hotshot and very pricy attorney's office (Pfeiffer, What Lies Beneath) who offers to work the case pro bono just to spite her critics who think of her as a cold, calculating and uncaring shell of an attorney. 

While I Am Sam has some strengths, notably the likeable characters and a lot of heart, these strengths are mostly lost in a sea of weaknesses, mostly dealing with bad filmmaking on a narrative and directorial level.  For one, while it's reasonable to assume someone could be obsessed by the Beatles, it seems it is the makers of the film that are the ones obsessed rather than Sam, as they try to cram as many references and covers to Beatles songs as they can for the duration of the movie.  That would also be well and good if there were any actual significance to the main story of a person with special needs fighting the system to keep his daughter, with the exception of an effective reference in a poignant moment citing "ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE".  At almost 2 1/2 hours, they could have done away with the half hour or so of needless vignettes and music videos of Sam shopping or twirling Lucy in the air to whatever Beatles tune the director had a whim to throw in.  The thinking must have been, "Hell, if you aren't going to give viewers a good story, might as well sucker them into plunking down money for the soundtrack when they leave the theater, right?"

This gross commerciality is a bit of a theme as the next annoying flaw comes from the fact that I Am Sam is about as much a conglomeration of corporate advertisements as it is a story.  If there are a half hour of needless Beatles moments that do nothing to forward the plot to sell soundtracks, there are just as many needlessly prolonged shots involving the showcase of products and restaurants who obviously must have paid lavishly for prominent screen time.  The entire opening sequence is an extended advertisement for Starbucks and Equal, and later we have gratuitously long scenes to make sure Payless Shoes, IHOP, Bob's Big Boy, and even more Starbucks will fill more frames of the film.  Strip down these scenes to what is actually important, and we could easily condense the film another half hour, and make it much more palatable without wasting our time.

Lastly, overlooking the commercialized aspect to concentrate on the actual story, I Am Sam panders its case in unrealistic ways.  Most scenes merely exist to show nothing other than Sam and Lucy need to be together, and all other people are clearly unfit parents or came from parents who abused them, with the exception of Mary Steenburgen who grew up fine despite having a retarded mother, of course.  We then get to see Lucy as a 7-year-old, and it's impossible not to think Sam raised her fine because she is every parents dream child.  Golden-locks (despite her brunette mother and father), a cute smile, and intelligence that exceeds almost any 7-year-old in existence and probably most adults.  Lucy is the kind of child that only exists in dramas like this, the kind of child that would require miracle parenting to achieve, yet we are supposed to believe Sam reared a child this prodigious all on his own through Dr. Seuss and Beatles songs.

I Am Sam is a fantasy-land film, the kind of feel-good film for people who need to believe no shortcoming is impossible for anyone who has the heart to try.  That's not to say it's without merits, as the emotional scenes are effective and performances strong enough to believe when the situation calls for heart.  Yet, every other scene tries to inject heart where head should be, and what we have is manipulation and contrivance where good storytelling should be.  Just as I Am Sam's story would have us believe that emotions are all you need to be a good parent, it also tries to convince us as viewers that it's all you need to make a good movie.  Unfortunately, to think this is a good movie, you have to feel that kooky characters, nice music, and an overall cuteness can overcome a predictable story, and writing so manipulative that you may need scissors afterward to cut the strings from your body that were pulled without respite or shame.

Qwipster's rating:

2002 Vince Leo