I Am Sam

Stars: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Wiest
Director: Jessie Nelson
Writers: Jessie Nelson and Kristine Johnson

If perchance you miss fully the first half of this movie, don’t worry, you won’t have missed much. It’s just a bunch of “Kodak moments” and musical interludes strung together to show us how cute the kid is, how silly and mentally challenged the father is, how much they obviously love each other, and how much of an obnoxious, image-obsessed woman the lawyer is. This is a case where the previews showed way too much. It picks up speed a bit at the half-way mark when the obnoxious lawyer wakes up a little to reality outside of her narrow, well-heeled life.

Sam Dawson (Sean Penn) has the mind of a 7-year-old and an infant daughter conceived with a homeless woman he once took in. The woman disappears from his life right after giving birth, leaving Sam to rear his daughter whom he names Lucy Diamond, in honor of the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”. He manages this difficult task with the help of a neighbor shut-in (Dianne Wiest as Annie), and while working at a Starbucks coffee shop, straightening the sweeteners and serving up the lattes. Lucy (played by the enchanting Dakota Fanning), is beautiful, smart and lovable and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the two have a magical relationship. But, it soon becomes apparent that Lucy is holding herself back at school, not wanting to surpass her father’s limited abilities for fear of hurting his feelings. Lucy is removed from his care by social services who deem him inept at raising a child. To win her back, he seeks the assistance of a shallow, high-priced, workaholic lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer as Rita Harrison) who only agrees to take his case pro bono (for free) in order to impress her co-workers. Somewhere along the long, tortuous road, Rita learns from Sam the value of family over career alone. But for him, it’s hit and miss; the court runs him through the ringer with the questions put forth, like what makes a good father and how can he cope with Lucy as she ages. Ultimately Sam learns, just as he always thought and just like the Beatles song says … “All You Need Is Love” … and a little luck … and a lot of help.

The scenes between Lucy and Sam are touching and the emotions seem real. The biggest problem comes from Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, particularly when she tries to counter Sam’s charges about how easy her life is. At that point, she breaks down in tears and tells him how miserable she is, that her son doesn’t love her and her husband is having an affair with someone prettier. And when this beautiful, rich woman says she feels ugly, it’s rather hard to take, because it comes across as an acting speech, a lousy one at that. Not one word rings true, but we do have another “Kodak moment” when Sam and Rita get to bond as friends rather than just playing client-lawyer.

It isn’t much of a tearjerker but you sure do get jerked around. Either the cinematographer was merely incompetent or he was told by the director to show empathy with the subject because the camera never stopped moving erratically or shaking, just like Sam. This technique, a documentary style approach often associated with handheld cameras, was annoyingly frenzied and totally unnecessary. Take some Tylenol with you, just in case.

Lotta says:
Surely there was another screenplay somewhere that would have “spoken” to Sean Penn the way he says I Am Sam did. I hate to say that Penn, a fine actor in any circumstance, did a good job playing a tick-riddled retarded person, but he does have a few exceptional moments which have more to do with the thinking process of such a person than anything he says or does. The kid, Dakota Fanning, has the kind of appeal that Drew Barrymore did as a child. She’ll go far. Sam’s friends put on a good show but the ones who aren’t “acting” per se really do a better job. Final analysis: I Am Sam takes a serious subject and turns into decaf. Also features Richard Schiff, Laura Dern and Loretta Devine.

Reviewed 2/1/02.