|I Am Sam|
|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 18 June 2002|
Near as I can tell, Sean Penn wants to be Dustin Hoffman.
In "I Am Sam," Penn channels not one but two of Hoffman's most memorable characters as he portrays Sam Dawson, a borderline autistic with the emotional maturity of a seven-year-old and an obsessive love of the Beatles. After a run-in with a hooker, Sam finds himself fighting for custody of his seven-year-old daughter Lucy in a script that is equal parts "Rainman" and "Kramer vs. Kramer." Michelle Pfeiffer co-stars as Rita, his caffeine-addicted, high-powered but emotionally stunted lawyer, and newcomer Dakota Fanning plays Lucy, a wise little girl forced to act as parent to her mentally challenged father. Dianne Wiest has a supporting role as Sam's agoraphobic neighbor who helps him raise Lucy, and the cast is rounded out by Joseph Rosenberg, Stanley DeSantis, Doug Hutchison and Brad Allan Silverman as Sam's close-knit group of mentally challenged yet loyal friends.
Writer/director Jessie Nelson and co-writer Kristine Johnson spent years researching the film, yet the screenplay is fatally hindered by their obvious reverence for the subject matter. As the melodrama progresses, the audience is meant to ignore the mounting evidence that in fact Sam is not emotionally or mentally equipped to raise his daughter alone, and instead simply go along with the trite and at times painfully contrived storyline. In true Hollywood paint-by-numbers fashion, Sam teaches Rita how to relate to her own young son, and shed her shark-in-nylons persona to become a real human being, while a happy-go-lucky custody arrangement is worked out between Sam and Lucy's loving foster mother (Laura Dern).
Penn's Oscar-nominated performance is the emotional core of the film, and he and Fanning have excellent chemistry and their father/daughter scenes are beautifully shot and staged. Pfeiffer unfortunately comes across as cartoonish at times, although it is refreshing to see her play a decidedly unlikable character. However, the performances cannot save this overly precious and pretentious film.
The visuals are crisp and clean, and the transfer is nearly flawless. Elliot Davis’ photography is a little heavy-handed (the film is shot predominantly in cool blues and grays), but colors are sharp and saturated, and blacks and flesh tones are handsome and realistic. The true gem of the film is the soundtrack, which features an impressive array of Beatles tunes and covers, which are handled beautifully in the sound mix. Dialogue is mostly centered, with ambient sounds and effects coming from the rears and mains.
In terms of extras, the disc is loaded. The lengthy "making of" special "Becoming Sam" covers much of the same material as director Nelson's commentary, so there is a good deal of overlap in terms of content. However, thankfully, the special spares the audience Nelson's frequent and repetitive (albeit deserved) gushing over Penn. Animated menus are easy to navigate, and feature stop-motion animation or origami and snippets of John Powell's playful score. Deleted and alternate (the storyline was revised slightly during shooting, and Penn improvised the lion's share of his dialogue) scenes include a different "meet cute" between Sam and Rita, additional scenes of Sam falling apart at home and at work after Lucy is taken away, and several touching scenes between Sam/ Lucy and Sam/Rita that were removed for story logic and pacing reasons.
Overall, this is a decent rental if your threshold for treacle is high, and if you're in the mood for "Rainman" Redux.