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I Am Sam

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: I Am Sam

Starring: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer
Director: Jessie Nelson
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 133 Minutes
Release Date: January 2002
Genre: Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

If you're a kid who was brought up lovingly by a mentally challenged dad who read you stories about green eggs and ham and spent lots of time with you because he didn't have a high- powered job, what would you like to happen when you reach the age of seven and begin intellectually to surpass your father? A) Remain with him even though he doesn't know the capital of the Czech Republic while you do, or B) have yourself committed to foster care ultimately to be adopted by a clever stranger even if that stranger looks like Laura Dern? Before you answer that: what resolution would you expect a movie studio to go with?


"I Am Sam, predictable and overlong and often pretty silly, seems to have been made not so much because we need another disease-of-the-week TV feature spread out across the big screen but because the producers must have believed that the public wants to see Sean Penn compete with Dustin Hoffman as The Rain Man. And indeed, "I Am Sam" is watchable largely because of this incredible actor's performance, which is often staged in real time as his character, Sam Dawson, goes about his task of sweeping the floor at an L.A. Starbucks, telling all the customers that they made excellent choices whether those preferences be latte, or straight cappuccino or any of the flavors that the Seattle-based chain is famous for, and hoping that with eight years' seniority he might be advanced to making coffee. Director Jesse Nelson ("Corrina, Corrina," "The Story of Us") milks the obligatory courtroom scene for heart-tugging emotion, allowing us to think for a while that the seven-year-old kid would be permanently taken from her dad, and yet to the credit of Ms. Nelson and co-scripter Kristine Johnson, there are some surprises both during the hearings and behind the scenes. For example, a high-priced lawyer working pro bono on the case ends up believing that she has gained more from her relationship with the developmentally challenged man than did he from his professional association with her.

Blending elements from "K-PAX" and "Kramer vs. Kramer" among other fare of this nature, "I Am Sam" opens with the birth of Lucy from a liaison between Sam and a homeless woman, the latter wanting nothing to do with the progeny. Ms. Nelson takes us quickly from the hospital scene to Lucy's eighth year where we watch her (Dakota Fanning) lovingly tended to by her single father who reads to her as best he can and who has the support of a group of "K-PAX"-like people in various stages of arrested intellectual development, including a guy who loves to quote from the movies, knows the directors and scenes, and could probably be a critic--but appears too bright for that profession. Then boom: as soon as social services in the form of Margaret (Loretta Devine) sees that young Lucy has surpassed her dad intellectually and in fact is deliberately holding herself back in school to avoid competing, they spring into action, seeking to take custody away from the father. Sam gets a successful lawyer, Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer) to work the case pro bono and deliberations take place in a nicely appointed, wood- paneled Los Angeles courtroom.

Since adoption proceedings are merely the stuff of daytime TV, "I Am Sam" wisely makes as big issue the relationship between opposites, two people from opposite sides of the fence who change each other--as Dan Cohen did in "Diamond Men" by putting young Donnie Wahlberg together with the aging Robert Forster so that each could modify the other's outlook on life. Since Rita spends most of her time on the job, she neglects her kid and her unseen husband but learns the meaning of parenting from the guy who sees a promotion to Starbucks coffee maker after eight years' work as the high point of his career. Through Sam. Rita learns to balance her time between her young son and her busy law office, as Sam reverses the usual mentor- follower relationship. Some of the scenes come off wholly artificial, particularly those involving Rita's relationship with her boy--she tells him it's bed time, he ignores her and circles about the capacious, coldly-furnished living room on his scooter.

I suppose "I Am Sam" is marketed as a holiday film much like the innocuous "Joe Somebody," and is rated PG-13 only because nobody under the age of 13 ever heard some of the strong language tossed around by the lawyer maybe five times in the entire story. Sean Penn fans will want to take this in to watch this exceptional actor perform as though he were seven years old. A fine performance as well by the prodigious Dakota Fanning as young Lucy. Beatles' music contributes nostalgia to the soundtrack.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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