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Bams' review of
I Am Sam


I Am Sam (2001)
Rated PG-13; running time 132 minutes
Studios: New Line Cinema
Genre: Drama
Seen at: Celebration Cinema (Lansing, Michigan)
Official site:
IMDB site:
Written by: Kristine Johnson, Jessie Nelson
Directed by: Jessie Nelson
Cast: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Wiest, Doug Hutchison, Stanley DeSantis, Brad Allan Silverman, Joseph Rosenberg, Richard Schiff, Laura Dern, Loretta Devine

Review Copyright Rose Cooper, 2002

(click here to skip to this movie's rating)

"Dear Mizzes Nelson and Johnson;
Please note: Drama does not have to be Melo to be touching. And we hate Hate HATE ShakyCams. Tell Misters Herskovitz and Zwick that we'd rather see their Once And Again black-and-white sequences over your bloody irritating abuse of ShakyCams, any day. Did you get that?
    -Toodles and Smooches, The Audience."

THE STORY (WARNING: **spoilers contained below**)
Sam (Sean Penn) a mentally disabled man and father of seven-year-old Lucy (Dakota Fanning), has to fight to keep her when she grows to be more mentally developed than he. Sam's friends - including Annie (Dianne Wiest), an agoraphobic and godmother of Lucy; Ifty (Doug Hutchinson), who has Attention Deficit Disorder; Robert (Stanley DeSantis), as paranoid as they come; and Brad (Brad Allan Silverman), a bona fide ladies' man - try to help Sam fight against The System that tries to take Lucy away from him, in the person of Margaret the Social Worker (Loretta Devine), and Randy (Laura Dern), the foster mother the courts assign to Lucy's case.

But Sam can't just get by with a little help from his friends; he finds Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer), a lawyer with a sugar jones, who takes Sam's case pro bono almost as a dare from her co-workers. But Rita's got Issues of her own, including an absent husband, and a son who she thinks hates her for her own estrangement from him.

I've often said that the average movie goer is a lot less concerned with the technical aspects of a film than the nitty gritty of it: "Is the movie good?" and "Is it worth me damn near having to take out a second mortgage to take my nuclear family out to see?", are the primary concerns of Joe and Jane Averagemoviegoer. But we're not stupid: we know when somebody has gotten a new Toy and wants to try it out on an unsuspecting public. In I Am Sam, that somebody was director Jessie Nelson, and that Toy was her nauseating use of ShakyCam, that filming technique used with a lot more finesse in TV shows like Homicide: Life On The Street, NYPD Blue, and the short-lived Wonderland. In those shows, ShakyCam usually didn't make your eyes cross; by contrast, the I Am Sam camera crew must've been suffering from a bad case of the DT's. If only for this reason alone, this movie earned my yellowlight rating.

But wait, that's not all! Nelson co-writer Kristine Johnson made a bad situation worse with their TV movie-quality script. I'd expect to see this caliber of writing in an Afternoon Special, not a feature film. The overtly melodramatic, syrupy thread that extended throughout this movie, capped by an ending that made me want to scream epithets, did a serious injustice to the actors and the tale they were trying to tell.

To be fair, some of those actors, and the characters they portrayed, did work for me. Sean Penn and Dakota Fanning had great chemistry together; Penn stayed just this side of Rainmanisms (though his constant Beatles references worked my nerves), and Fanning never resorted to the Cute Waif act that so many of her contemporaries employ. Though I thought Dianne Weist's character was overkill, she once again rose above her material and added a needed touch of professional showmanship to this production. Richard Schiff's Prosecutor was a lot more subtle than I would've expected. And of Sam's crew, I particularly enjoyed Stanley DeSantis as the paranoid Robert, and especially Brad Allan Silverman - who happens to really be mentally disabled - as Playa Playa Brad. Silverman in particular is noteworthy, because he seemed to be the most natural actor of the bunch.

As for the rest, bleah; Doug Hutchinson, Laura Dern, and Loretta Devine, were totally expendable. And as for Michelle Pfeiffer...I usually find her at least charming, and sometimes even good, in her films. But I desperately wanted her to just shut up here; I found her to be anti-sympathetic to the point of pain, and her characterization of Rita to be completely incredulous. Every word, every syllable from her Rita, rang completely untrue to me; she was nothing short of slimy, from start to finish. There wasn't a moment when her character didn't absolutely rub my kidney raw, not a bleedin' moment. [One more] I passionately hated Rita The Whiner, and through her, Pfeiffer. Maybe I'm mistaken, but I don't think that was the intended effect.

THE "BLACK FACTOR"    [ObDisclaimer: We Are Not A Monolith]
Here I go, opening up a new can o' tangential worms...

I believe in calling people what they want to be called. And I'm well aware that Words can, indeed, Hurt You. But I'm sorry, I'm old school; when I think of Sam's and Brad's condition, the word that honestly pops to my mind is "retarded", not "mentally disabled". Does that make me a Bad Person? I hope not. I definitely mean no harm in it; it's just the word I was raised to call them by. But if I want to give myself that out, I must also give it to those who'd look at me and think "colored" instead of "Black". And in turn, the more thoroughly modern amongst us might want to take me to task for being so passe in using "Black" instead of "African-American". Do I care? Of course I do, or I wouldn't have brought it up. Will I stop using "Black"? Do you really have to ask?

If there was a heartstring to be tugged, or a tear to be jerked, director Jessie Nelson and co-writer Kristine Johnson tugged and jerked as hard as they could. Down, girls; you don't have to hit us so hard with the Whifflebat Of Melodrama.

And get a tripod next time, 'kay?

I AM SAM:   yellow

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And that's the way I see it.

Rose "Bams" Cooper
3BlackChicks Review™
Copyright Rose Cooper, 2002
EMAIL:    ICQ: 7760005

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More 3BlackChicks...™ review(s) for this week:
(entertainment reviewed week of 1/25/02):
Bams' reviews:
I Am Sam | Kung Pow!: Enter the Fist
Fosse (live theater review)

The Diva's reviews:
The Count Of Monte Cristo

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