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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 Edward Johnson-Ott
1 star out of 4

If you're in the mood to cry a little and go "Awww" a lot, then "I Am Sam" is the movie for you. Wait, let me qualify that. If you're in the mood to cry a little and go "Awww" a lot and you don't mind being shamelessly manipulated, then "I Am Sam" is the movie for you. Wait, let me qualify that. If you're in the mood to cry a little and go "Awww" a lot and you don't mind being shamelessly manipulated by a script so unrealistic that it could only take place in a parallel universe, then "I Am Sam" is the movie for you.

"I Am Sam" pretends to tell the story of a mentally retarded man fighting to get his young daughter back after the state takes her away. "Pretends" is the operative word, because virtually nothing that happens in this film would occur in real life.

The tearjerker opens with Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a mentally retarded 40-year-old man with autistic tendencies, bussing tables at a Starbucks in suburban Los Angeles. Sam spends the rest of his time lovingly tending to his 7-year-old daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning), the product of a one-night stand between Sam and a homeless woman who left shortly after the birth of the child. Lucy, a whip-snap smart little girl, recognizes that daddy is "different" and is fiercely protective of him. Sam raises the girl with the assistance of several retarded buddies and his agoraphobic neighbor, Annie (Dianne Wiest).

Sam and Lucy's happy life of reading Dr. Seuss and sharing minutia about the Beatles comes apart when a woman hits on him and he innocently agrees that he "likes to have a good time." An undercover cop springs out of nowhere and hauls the confused man to jail for soliciting a prostitute. Even though the charges are dropped, the encounter draws the attention of the Department of Child Services. They take Lucy away, reasoning that, since Sam has a mental age of 7 and Lucy is turning 7, she will soon intellectually outgrow him, making him an unfit father.

Desperate to rescue his child, Sam ends up in the law office of high-profile attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), because the ad for her firm is the biggest in the yellow pages. After initially brushing him off, Rita eventually gets shamed into taking his case pro bono. Ironically, while representing a father and daughter that love each other immeasurably, she and her own son constantly squabble with each other.

So what's wrong with this picture? Everything. As the proud papa of a retarded son and a veteran of the social services system, let me fill you in.

Sam would never have worked at Starbucks (you can't support a kid on that kind of money), he never would have been arrested (the second the officer realized Sam was retarded he would have cut him loose) and the state would never have tried to take Lucy away, particularly for such an idiotic reason (if he was such an ill-equipped parent, how the hell did he raise her for those first seven years and how did she turn out so well-balanced and quick witted?).

Shortly after the departure of the mother, Sam's boss, Annie or another friend would make a few calls and connect him with the social services system. Programs vary from state to state, but Sam would soon end up with an organization designed to help retarded adults live as independently as possible. Sam's liaison person would assist him in finding a better-paying job (which would not be hard given his good nature and relatively high social skills) and an appropriately sized apartment. Even though Annie and Sam's buddies already help with Lucy, the liaison worker would strengthen the support system by insuring the availability of staff persons to assist the father and daughter as needed.

Incidentally, the presence of such programs does not indicate an enlightened bureaucracy. The bozos are still in charge. These programs came into place solely because the state finally realized that offering this sort of support is far cheaper than other options.

Had I been one of the producers of "I Am Sam," I would inform writers Kristine Johnson and Jessie Nelson that their script is 30 years out of date just before chucking it into the wastebasket. Then I would say, "If you want to do a feel-good movie, do an honest one. Start the story on the day the mother leaves. Focus on Sam as he turns to Annie and his buddies for help. Devote more time to Annie and her agoraphobia. Keep Sam's buddies, particularly Joseph Rosenberg and Brad Allan Silverman - the actors who are mentally handicapped in real life - they do a terrific job."

"Draw your tears by depicting Sam's day-to-day struggles to maintain a job and care for his daughter while making sure she has sufficient contact with people of average intelligence to insure that she does not end up socially retarded. And you can keep Michelle Pfeiffer's character in the film - just make Rita another neighbor that Sam draws into his support circle."

"Hold on to the soundtrack of Beatles' covers by all those singer-songwriters - it's a dandy. Finally, I don't want to hear Sam use Beatles' anecdotes as metaphors for what is occurring around him: People with a mental age of 7 do not traffic in metaphors."

As I usher the writers out of my office, I would conclude by saying, "Kristine and Jessie, count your blessings. Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer and little Dakota Fanning are exceptional talents and the onscreen rapport between Sam and Lucy, not to mention Sam and Rita, is delightful. Just put that wretched script, including the cheesy ending that conveniently ignores every issue raised during the story, behind you and write a new one that does justice to these characters."

And I'd be right.

Copyright 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott

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