I'm of two minds about I Am Sam. There's the rejecting mind, which thinks the movie's a manipulative load of PC crap. And there's the accepting mind, which thinks the movie's a very sweet, albeit manipulative, load of PC... stuff. Starring Sean Penn as a mentally challenged man who's fighting for custody of his 7-year-old daughter, I Am Sam wears both its heart and its brain on its sleeve. We're supposed to fall hard for Sam, who's one of the kindest, gentlest characters in the history of movies. But we're also supposed to buy into the movie's argument, which is that Sam is fully capable of performing as a father in every important way. I don't know about the rest of you, but I found myself arguing with the movie's argument. Then I found myself succumbing to it. Then I found myself arguing with it again.
I said I was of two minds.
There's nothing wrong with a movie that makes us think. What's interesting about I Am Sam is that it isn't all that open-minded. Director Jessie Nelson, who wrote the script with Kristine Johnson, makes her points as if she were building a case to take to court. And she doesn't hesitate to cast her line of reasoning in its best light. Which is why Sam is so amazingly sweet and his daughter is so amazingly well adjusted and intelligent and emotionally mature. Ironically, Sam risks losing Lucy not when she's a baby ("Sam, babies need food every two hours," a friendly neighbor advises) but when her mental age surpasses his. All of a sudden, nightly run-throughs of Green Eggs and Ham, which is the limit of Sam's reading ability, don't cut it anymore. And because Lucy (whom newcomer Dakota Fanning endows with the wisdom of the ages) is reluctant to move past Dr. Seuss in school, the authorities move in.
So does Michelle Pfeiffer as a high-powered lawyer who's been raising her own toddler via conference calls. Here, too, Nelson and Johnson stack the deck. Pfeiffer's Rita may be rich, smart and fabulous looking in her Armani suits, but she's a disaster as a mother. Whereas Sam takes Lucy to the park every day. And plays with her. And laughs with her. Oddly, the movie includes almost no instances of Sam actually parenting Lucy ' grounding her, say. Of course, she's so perfect she doesn't require much parenting. Which allows the film to push its PSA regarding the raising of children: All you need is love. Speaking of which, Sam is a Beatles fanatic; he can quote their life stories chapter and verse. And so Nelson fills the airwaves with a succession of Beatles cover songs by the likes of Sarah McLachlan and Rufus Wainright. Manipulative?
Yes, but...let it be, let it be.
As Sam, Penn either gives one hell of a performance or performs one hell of an acting exercise. Physically, he does a lot with his hands and fingers, folding his thumbs into his clenched fists and then sending stray digits off at weird angles. Verbally, he seems to draw almost too heavily on Dustin Hoffman's performance in Rain Man ' the repetitions, the hurdy-gurdy voice. Sam is supposed to be both retarded and slightly autistic, so the similarity to Hoffman's Raymond makes sense. But it's awfully hard ' no, impossible ' to forget that this is, in fact, Sean Penn playing a mentally challenged man, however well or ill. Pauline Kael famously described Rain Man as "Dustin Hoffman humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes." Penn hits more than one note, but I'm not sure they ever form an actual melody. Should they? Should we expect a dramatic arc from Penn's Sam? Quite honestly, I don't know.
If all I Am Sam wants to do is let us know that mentally challenged people are capable of meeting many of those challenges, then it succeeds. Plus, the movie's enjoyable on its own movie-making terms. Nelson adopts a quasi-documentary style that seems both objective and subjective, the camera flitting about as if it were a flea trapped inside Sam's head. At times, I wished that Nelson would just relax and tell her story. I also wished she would let up on the product endorsements, especially for Starbucks, which appears in more scenes than Pfeiffer does. That Pfeiffer's Rita might have something to learn from Sam about life and love and latte is an idea no one would argue with, hence boring. That Sam might be capable of raising a child is an idea many would argue with, hence interesting. But is there no middle ground? Without giving the ending away, let's just say that ultimately, the movie itself is of two minds.