Review by Steve Rhodes
2 stars out of 4
What do you get when you cross a 2+ hour Starbucks commercial with KRAMER VS.
KRAMER and a five pound bag of sugar? Jessie Nelson's I AM SAM.
(Appropriately, the long first scene is a close-up of Sam arranging and
rearranging packets of sugar.)
The Starbucks commercial is interrupted periodically so that the movie can hawk
IHOP, Bob's Big Boy, Pizza Hut, Payless Shoes and other products. With bigger
intentions than just garnering product placement fees, I AM SAM wants to be the
film that finally gets Sean Penn his Oscar. His schmaltzy performance, which
plays like an acting school class lesson, is just the sort that the Academy
loves, especially since his character is mentally challenged. If you want to
gamble your hard earned dollars on this year's winner, Penn would be a smart
choice. Personally, I had enough of it after the first five minutes.
The script, co-written by Kristine Johnson (THE STORY OF US) and Jessie Nelson,
concerns a man named Sam -- as in "Sam I Am" from Dr. Seuss's "Green Eyes And
Ham" -- who has the mental capacity of a seven year old. This single dad,
played accurately but gratingly by Sean Penn, has a daughter who has just had
her seventh birthday. Named Lucy -- as in "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" --
the girl is played too knowingly by blonde-haired, blue-eyed cutie Dakota
Fanning. Fanning's only other picture, surprisingly, was the raunchy TOMCATS.
The problem with her performance as Lucy is that she is as wise and mature as a
teenager. (Those parents with teenagers, please avoid the urge to write me to
educate me about my misconceptions about teenagers' wisdom and maturity.)
Just when the movie looks hopelessly maudlin, Sam is arrested for soliciting a
prostitute -- one of many scenes that ring false. The arrest puts in motion a
sequence of events that causes the courts to want to take Lucy from Sam, which
means he needs a lawyer. Wanting the best "four names" lawyer he can't afford,
retains Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer), who reluctantly takes his case pro bono.
The two of them are like sweet-and-sour sauce. Pfeiffer cuts through the
saccharin and almost makes the movie worthwhile.
The overly plotted tale gives Rita a son that she's too busy to see, much less
play with. Meanwhile, she works hard for a client like Sam who has all the love
and time to give but is being prevented from giving them. Pfeiffer is terrific
and funny even if never quite believable. (The only credible character is
played by Laura Dern as an exemplary foster mother.) Pfeiffer's funniest moment
occurs when she keeps screaming "Home!" into a voice activated cell phone that
won't listen properly. Her type-A character is never smart enough to realize
that she could easily punch in the number.
This highly manipulative commercial masquerading as a movie could at least have
had the grace not to go on forever. At our screening, even those who liked it
thought it went on way too long.
Wait for video and borrow your neighbor's tape. If, after five minutes, you've
already reached sugar overload, you won't have wasted anything.
I AM SAM runs 2:13. It is rated PG-13 for "language" and would be acceptable
for kids around 11 and up.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes