Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I Am Sam (2001)

I'm just going to come right out and say it: this is a terrible movie. Of course, courtroom tearjerkers aren't always the greatest, but there are plenty of good ones and plenty of good ways to make one. I Am Sam, on the other hand, doesn't have any of these things. Let's take a look at what the film does wrong in its approach to telling the story of a mentally handicapped man, Sam (Sean Penn), who fathers a daughter (Dakota Fanning) and has to fight to get her back after she's taken by Social Services.
- The story: Sentimentality is not a bad thing, when used in moderation; the very existence of some films is to move its audience to tears. However, Jessie Nelson and Kristine Johnson's screenplay lays on the goop so think that its almost unbearable. It's a Lifetime-movie-of-the-week released in theaters, and no "revelation" goes unpredicted. And its lack of sensitivity and the way it panders to the audience are also condemnable. Its lazy screenwriting at its "finest."
- The score: John Powell's score is wildly schizophrenic, jumpy from a sprighty, psuedo-Irish jig of flutes and fiddles to a lugubrious, schmaltzy adagio that one has little time to switch gears, which is, ironically, what the score is supposed to help you do. And the saccharine Beatles covers are too many; a little goes a long way, but here we're drowned in these songs as if no other kind of music would be sufficient.
- The direction: This is, without a doubt, the very worst aspect of the film. Its choppy, with more quick edits, hand-held shots, and random close-ups than were ever necessary for the film. Director Jessie Nelson seems to have been afflicted with ADD at the time of filming, or at least thought that the audience did and wouldn't pay attention unless the screen was very, very busy. This all distracts from the performances on screen, which...
- The performances: This is were the movie is at its best. Sean Penn gives a convincing performance, by no means Oscar-worthy but good enough to make you see Sam as a human being and not a caricature (though, I'll be honest, there were multiple times throughout the film that I found myself thinking of Robert Downey Jr.'s "full retard" monologue from Tropic Thunder; now there's a performance!). The real heroes here are Dakota Fanning, who made her breakthrough here with a strong, incredible performance that outshines everyone else on the screen (when you can steal scenes from Sean Penn at age 7, you have a real talent), and Michelle Pfiffer, who is at first an offensively bad character but saves herself with her "You don't know what it's like...." speech toward the end.
The real star of this film.
I Am Sam is more or less the Two and a Half Men of courtroom dramas: its a lowest common denominator film that panders to its audience about a man who may not be fit to raise a child. And of course that's not a compliment.


Simon said...

I find this so ridiculous, Sean Penn always ridiculous, it is just such a patronizing movie.

Jason H. said...

It's The Song of the South for mental disorders.