I Am Sam (2001)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Melodrama, Courtroom Drama, Message Movie  |   Release Date - Dec 28, 2001 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 132 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - PG13
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Review by Karl Williams

For a film that's waterlogged in bathos, it features a brilliant performance from the ever-versatile and surprising Sean Penn, who is a shocker not just for the technical achievement of his role but for the warmth he injects into it. Maybe it's real-life fatherhood, but the actor exhibits a depth of soul previously absent from his already stellar work, putting him into a league where he could conceivably play just about anyone. On the whole, however, the project comes up short, gorging itself on sentiment, its calculatedly twee preciousness finally overwhelming one's desire to like it. There is a dissonance here between the great acting of Penn, Dianne Wiest, and young Dakota Fanning, who display Oscar-caliber talents, and the style and tone of director Jessie Nelson, whose craft employs all of the nuance and grace of a Lifetime Original Movie. That's not to say that the film lacks emotional impact, but the obviousness and desperation of the filmmakers' manipulation provoke tears that are not cathartic, but bitter and resentful. Serious questions are asked, but never really answered, and the weary civil servants who ask them in an effort to do their important jobs are treated as heavies. Michelle Pfeiffer is handed a one-note role, her problematic husband is never even glimpsed, robbing her of the sort of conflict necessary to reveal more about her character. The director's predilection for handheld camera work, presumably to impart upon the viewer a sense of the protagonist's confused disorientation, only serves to leave the film's cross-eyed audience reaching for the Dramamine when combined with the director's taste for numerous close-ups. And audiences will likely be split on the use of developmentally disabled characters to serve as a literal comic relief peanut gallery. The production team has attempted to dodge any criticism of this hackneyed ploy by utilizing real-life developmentally challenged actors in some of these supporting roles, but it doesn't mean that the way they're presented by the script is any less exploitative. The subtlety born of good taste would have gone a long way toward making I Am Sam a more worthy, meaningful, and memorable effort.