Movie Review: I Am Sam
By Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Some actors can rise above their movies; some are so good, they elevate the entire picture. In "I Am Sam," Sean Penn plays a mentally disabled Los Angeles Starbucks employee named Sam Dawson, a gentle, loving single father with the mind of a 7-year-old. The role sounds like a sentimental trap, but Penn doesn't fall into it. It's a sensational performance, and he illumines a movie that sometimes seems in danger of descending into modish Hollywood political correctness.
Directed and co-written by Jessie Nelson ("Corrina, Corrina"), "I Am Sam" seems to push typical message-movie buttons most obviously with its lovable, childlike hero: the perfect father and the perfect victim. An admirer of The Beatles, IHOP French pancakes and Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" (whose teasing protagonist, Sam-I-Am, is the source of the title), Sam also has a brilliant 7-year-old daughter named Lucy, whose intellect surpasses his and whom the state is trying to wrest away from him. The movie is about his tremendous struggle to keep his child, with the aid of flashy, high-powered attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), who gets sucked into the case as his pro bono lawyer.
"I Am Sam" is a mixed bag. Sometimes annoying, sometimes deeply moving, it's an often formula-ridden tearjerker that nevertheless draws honest tears: a blend of calculation and freshness, cliché and spontaneity. There's a wall-to-wall soundtrack of Beatles song covers to cue all the emotions and an almost utterly predictable story line. But Penn and Dakota Fanning, the remarkable child actress who plays Lucy, give this movie a sweet, shining center. The picture telegraphs almost all its punches; you can see where it's borrowing from "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Rain Man" or even Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid." Yet somehow the punches keep landing.
Penn isn't just Oscar-mongering here. He really captures the physical qualities of the role: the halting, sometimes toneless speech, the jerking gestures, the confused struggles with words and actions, the unrestrained bursts of childlike glee. Whether interacting with Lucy, Rita or his three mentally challenged friends Ifty, Brad, Joe (played by Doug Hutchinson and two excellent disabled actors, Brad Allan Silverman and Joseph Rosenberg) and their slightly paranoid caretaker, Robert (Stanley DeSantis), Penn plays Sam without an ounce of condescension. He captures something deeper as well. Sam has a guileless sweetness, a disarming honesty and selflessness that turn his relationship with daughter Lucy into something moving, even radiant.
Set in Santa Monica and west Los Angeles, the movie reflects that area's values: ever-sunny, outwardly humane but also obsessed with good looks, money and winning, yet guilty over those obsessions. The film follows Sam, but it's really from Rita's viewpoint.
At first, they inhabit different worlds. Sam is an eight-year employee of Starbucks, where he tidies up the place, delivers the coffees and beams "That's a wonderful choice!" to his customers, no matter what they order. Lucy named, naturally, after "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" is the product of Sam's brief fling with a homeless woman who splits after the birth. Their dad-and-daughter relationship seems idyllic (full of romps in the park and endless readings of "Green Eggs and Ham") until an unwitting Sam is solicited by a prostitute, arrested and released. Tagged by an overzealous social services worker (Loretta Devine) as an unfit father, he's plunged into psychiatric sessions and a custody battle, with Lucy removed and slated for a foster home. Sam is forced to put up a court fight against the formidably nasty but soft-tongued Child Services lawyer Turner (Richard Schiff).
His attorney is Rita (Pfeiffer), whose honey-blond beauty, fast-lane lifestyle and double-Beatle-reference name conceal a crumbling marriage, a bundle of neuroses and failures as a mother. Rita takes the case to cover up a lie. After blowing off Sam when he comes to her for help, she tries to silence jibes from her cynical co-workers by claiming she's his pro bono attorney. Typically for this kind of movie, she becomes more and more emotionally involved as her court donnybrooks with sarcastic, insidious Turner get meaner and rougher.
To enjoy the film, you have to buy Penn's performance which I did. Nelson sets up the story so Sam and Rita are opposite numbers. Sam may have the mind of a 7-year-old, but he also has all the patience, self-denial and parental compassion Rita lacks. Also, Sam refuses to lie, making him a problematic client.
It seems telling that a number of critics who dislike this movie argue Sam's case as if it were real: Some of them seem to want to sign up as part of Turner's legal team. But the primary drama-sentiment button the movie pushes is that parental love transcends governmental and legal formulas, that the bond between parent and child, no matter how beleaguered, is essential, overpowering. I buy that, too.
Even the all-Beatles soundtrack nine covers by artists ranging from Eddie Vedder ("You've Got to Hide Your Love Away") to Sheryl Crow ("Mother Nature's Son") is more integral than it first seems. The Beatles, like all great pop artists, struck universal chords, and Nelson found, in her research with the Santa Monica nonprofit agency L.A. Goal, that the Fab Four were the favorite musicians of most mentally disabled people she contacted that, just like Sam, they knew the songs and tended to dwell on the minutiae of their careers. Nelson directed one movie I liked, with strong reservations ("Corrina Corrina"), and co-wrote two movies that were saccharine and silly: "The Story of Us" (with Pfeiffer) and "Stepmom" (with Julia Roberts). Overall, there's liveliness to her directorial style, with its handheld camerawork and a real heart-filled empathy and engagement with most of the performers, that makes her scripts work better when she directs them herself.
Chief among them is Penn. He's so good that the rest of the cast especially Dianne Wiest as his great champion and neighbor, agoraphobic pianist Annie consistently rise up with him. Penn is not a consistently lovable actor. His trademark qualities are a certain slyness and explosiveness; his eyes, wide and innocent as Sam, can take on a mean, sneaky glint. But here he transforms himself. In little Dakota Fanning, he has an almost irresistible acting partner, and in Sam he has a character lovable and infuriating, eccentric and disarming. In the end I had to capitulate. For this movie, Sean Penn is a wonderful choice.
"I Am Sam"
Directed by Jessie Nelson; written by Kristine Johnson, Nelson; photographed by Elliot Davis; edited by Richard Chew; production designed by Aaron Osborne; music by John Powell; produced by Nelson, Richard Solomon, Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday, Jan. 25. Running time: 2:12. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language).
Sam Dawson Sean Penn
Rita Harrison Michelle Pfeiffer
Lucy Dawson Dakota Fanning
Annie Dianne Wiest
Turner Richard Schiff
Randy Carpenter Laura Dern