Maybe I’m inclined to be more charitable to Tom Shadyac’s I Am right now than I might be at other times, since it serves as a counter argument to Atlas Shrugged. In fact, its central premise against selfishness and self-interest is virtually the anti-Atlas. I find its message worthy enough, and its presentation is agreeably slick and blessedly brief (the movie wisely clocks in at under 80 minutes). That it finally comes down to—albeit with a good deal of mumbo-jumbo—a kind of “All You Need Is Love” message (which the film admits) is kind of comforting to us children of the 1960s in a kind of “Hey, maybe that wasn’t so wild after all.” The problem is that I can’t get away from the fact that this is—well, there’s no nice way of putting this—a vanity project.
Tom Shadyac isn’t exactly a household name, but a string of movies of debatable (and less) merit—Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), The Nutty Professor (1996), Patch Adams (1998), Bruce Almighty (2003)—made him both a bankable director and a director with an impressive bank account. Ah, but all this changed in 2007, when Shadyac had a bicycle accident that left him with post-concussion syndrome. This was a life-changing event that made him want to change our lives, too. I am reminded of a tale from Frank Capra who, in the mid-1930s, suffered a debilitating illness that may or may not have been cured by a mysterious man who lectured him on how he should use the medium of movies to preach to the world. The idea took root with Capra—till cooler heads prevailed and talked him out of it. Apparently, no one was around to do the same for Shadyac.
I don’t mean to be cynical about Shadyac’s motives or indeed about his film. I find his personal decision to sell his mansion(s) and move into a trailer park admirable—and more than a little screwy—but I’m still more than a little curious about what he’s done with his money, other than channel it into this movie. Still, I think his intentions with this movie are sincere. And the results—even when they wander off into the really New Agey stuff (like sentient yogurt) and pure “All One” bumpersticker-ese—are interesting, entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking. Some of the people he’s lined up to discuss “the meaning of it all” are pretty impressive—Noam Chomsky, Archbishop Tutu, Howard Zinn—though it might have been nice if he hadn’t felt compelled to filter what they say into his own terms. And I have no issues at all with the idea that “good acts” take on a life of their own and build into something larger.
Really, though, I Am is a film that will appeal mostly to the specific audience that already agrees with it. That’s the inevitable tragedy of the activist documentary, and I don’t see this one being any different. Not Rated and contains nothing to frighten the horses.