In I Am Sam, Sean Penn is Sam Dawson, the kind of saintly retarded man familiar from Hollywood confections like Rain Man, who puts the world back into perspective and reminds us of the simpler pleasures lost in our frenzied way of life.
Left to raise his daughter single- handedly, Sam's single-parent challenge is intensified by his I.Q. -- equivalent to that of a 7-year-old. And when his daughter turns 7, Sam's intellectual glass ceiling becomes a greater and greater burden on his and Lucy's (Dakota Fanning) relationship.
When the lovably hapless Sam is thrown into the clink for mistakenly soliciting an Asian hooker who embodies every cliche short of saying "me love you long time," a mercenary representative of the Department of Child and Family Services, the odious Margaret Calgrove (Loretta Devine), spies a potential chance to interfere.
In the river of schmaltz and hogwash that ensues, Lucy is soon taken away from Sam and a David-versus-Goliath court battle ensues. Michelle Pfeiffer, looking every inch the Adrian Lyne fantasy of a lady executive, is the lawyer, Rita Harrison, who takes Sam's case. A frantic, depressed yuppie who is too busy cursing her cell phone and berating her secretary to appreciate the nuances of an IHOP breakfast or mocha decaf, lady lawyer must learn a valuable lesson in slowing down and opening up from Sam.
It is a mark of director Nelson's butter-finger hold on reality that corporations like the Starbucks where Sam has worked for seven years or the IHOP where he lunches every Wednesday are treated as benevolent mom-and-pop businesses. Starbucks gets an especially fantastical treatment as a coffee-utopia filled with kindly folk who grin at Sam like an indulged child and managers who treat their employees like lifelong pals rather than a disposable, cheap labor pool. In keeping with the filmmaker's lopsided view of the state of things, corporate veracity has been substituted for emotional authenticity.
While corporate America is as warm and fuzzy as something out of Frank Capra, government bureaucracy is the real foe in I Am Sam. It is the courts, social services, psychologists and the lawyers who are this film's 21st-century Cyclops: nearly blind, monstrous and impossible to reason with.
Everything is prearranged for maximum cuteness in I Am Sam, like the cadre of Sam's mentally challenged buds who meet for video nights every week and hang out in a large clubhouse-y group in a state of perpetual asexual boyhood. Hollywood always prefers its disabled characters to be harmless, innocent and neutered.
For the most part, I Am Sam is so busy handing out humanitarian awards to itself, the film's germ of a message, about what actually constitutes a good parent, is eclipsed by the film's grotesque, shameless merchandising of sensitivity.
The performances in I Am Sam are the kind of feel good faux-humanism that warms the cockles of Academy voters. Performances like Penn's tend to be regarded as the apex of one's career arc and the most demanding kind of role. In fact, the exaggerated gestures and ticks of disability that define such performances seem simply easier to mimic than, say, the far more ambiguous and individual performance of grief or desire.
As if playing a mentally challenged grown-up weren't emotional appeal enough, Penn's co-star is a heartrendingly adorable Temple-ish moppet. A perfect blond dumpling with her cottony mop of hair and enormous, imploring blue eyes, newcomer Dakota Fanning has the angelic prettiness of a miniature Michelle Pfeiffer (whose own performance is as goofily broad as they come). But the blonde who really steals the show is Laura Dern, bringing a much-needed human element into this Hollywood playacting with her performance as a foster parent desperate to be Lucy's mother. Dern's mixture of irritation with Sam's flaky ways and her hurt over Lucy's continual worship of him is as close as the film ever gets to capturing something that might be described as genuine.
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