Rumor has it that the producers of I Am Sam saved themselves $12 million by crafting a soundtrack consisting of some generally white-bread covers of Beatles songs (OK, so The Black Crowes’ version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and Sheryl Crow’s “Mother Nature’s Son” aren’t disgraceful). You wonder why they need to have bothered. You’d think they could have afforded the real thing just on the strength of the nonstop product placement that crops up in nearly every scene of this treacly morass of shameless manipulation that attempts to float a transparent Oscar-bid performance from Sean Penn. After noting Equal, Sweet ‘n’ Low, Starbuck’s, Hertz, Pizza Hut, IHOP and Big Boy, I lost count of the number of thinly veiled advertisements, but not the scope of them. At least this provided a distraction from the indigestibly improbable antics of the movie itself, which consists of phony emotions, phony situations, phony solutions and phony Beatle songs. The improbabilities of I Am Sam, though numerous (let’s just start by questioning how Penn’s character manages to pay for a nice apartment in a good section of Los Angeles on an $8-per-hour busboy job at Starbuck’s), are far from its only problems, and perhaps not the worst of them. Director/co-writer/co-producer Jessie Nelson — who last wished on us the equally gooey, but less obnoxious Corrina, Corrina seven years ago — returns much after the fashion of the similarly timed locust to throw this glorified TV film at us with every predictable plot twist, contrived tug-at-the-heart-strings and too-cute-to-live gag she could cobble together from whatever source crossed her mind. What never seems to have crossed her mind is anything even remotely resembling originality or believability. Every aspect of the film seems borrowed from some other source, much like its ersatz Beatles soundtrack. Penn’s character is drawn from every similar movie featuring a mentally challenged character. That it ever rings true is solely due to Penn, not the movie. All the characters in the film are types culled from other movies. Even the usually unbeatable Dianne Weist is unable to do much with her character of an understanding, agoraphobic neighbor. The whole set-up of having Michelle Pfeiffer’s hard-nosed lawyer learn a life-lesson from her more simple client is the stuff of a dozen or more movies. As for Penn’s similarly challenged network of friends … anyone remember a picture called The Dream Team? The plot itself is an inverted variation of a hoary mother-love drama from the 1920s, dressed up in Kramer Vs. Kramer clothing with the mentally challenged twist grafted onto it. (I can just see this movie being pitched to the studio with, “It’s like Kramer Vs. Kramer meets Rain Man.) The sad thing about all this is that I Am Sam raises some very valid questions about parenthood and the rights of a parent and the rights of the mentally challenged — but then can only come up with contrivances and cliches by way of an answer, all leading to an utterly fantasticated ending that thinks its final image is the “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence out of A Hard Day’s Night. It doesn’t help matters that Nelson’s directorial style consists of a lot of wobbly hand-held camerawork (you can add phony cinema verite to the list of phoniness that makes up the movie), jumpy editing and ugly lighting, all of which is apparently meant to make I Am Sam “real” in the manner of a documentary. It’s way too little to help the script and quickly just becomes annoying and intrusive. Actually, that fairly describes the movie, too.
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