- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

"I Am Sam," the tear-jerker to dread among this week's abundance of new titles, encourages Sean Penn to ham it up and wear out his welcome as a paternal underdog: a mentally retarded sweet guy named Sam Dawson suddenly faced with the prospect of losing custody of his clever and affectionate 7-year-old daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning, so unaffected and appealing that she ends up protecting Mr. Penn).
Sam's good faith also is predicated on his devotion to the Beatles. Lucy comes from "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." In fact, it's not unreasonable to regard Sam as the surviving fifth Beatle. He has four cronies, also mentally retarded sweet guys who have become kind of honorary uncles to the little girl. The girl doesn't want to be separated from her dad but has started to dissemble to mask the emerging intellectual gap. Sam seeks legal advice.
At random, from the phone book, he chooses a fashionable firm adorned by Michelle Pfeiffer as the career-obsessed, overbooked Rita Harrison, who may have sacrificed her family life to professional advancement. Anyway, she seems to be estranged from an off-screen husband and needs Sam to mend fences with a son named Willy. (Freeing Willy is an inspirational bonus of the crusade to keep Sam and Lucy together on mutually advantageous terms.)
Mr. Penn's chances of duplicating the prestige of Dustin Hoffman on the occasion of "Rainman" or Tom Hanks on the occasion of "Forrest Gump" are undermined by a combination of acting blunders and the refusal of director and co-writer Jessie Nelson to recognize when enough is enough. Having succeeded in a slightly eccentric way with "Corinna, Corinna," Miss Nelson may have mistaken herself for a sentimental miracle worker.
Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to be the director Mr. Penn needs. That would be someone watchful and demanding enough to prevent his performance from overdosing prematurely on ill-considered poses, notably images of Sam's mouth hanging open. When influenced by humorous rather than pathetic urges, Mr. Penn seems to be headlining another movie entirely. Say a knockabout farce in which Martin Short was cast originally as the wacky protagonist.
Sam works as a busboy at a Starbucks in Los Angeles. He flunks an audition at preparing and serving the chain's trademark coffees after pleading for a chance to improve his status.
This slapstick calamity has a certain bearing on Sam's legal emergency because it puts him in a defeatist mood just before he testifies on his own behalf at a custody hearing. There's an even more disillusioning repercussion if you're a spectator: the suspicion that all the actors must have been chuckling to themselves between takes, perhaps sharing imitations of Sam at his goofiest or saddest. The temptation would be pretty irresistible.
Despite the unlikelihood of a love match other than Sam and Lucy in this context, Miss Nelson seems to have carryover matchmaking urges from "Corinna, Corinna." You're always waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of a ridiculous and humiliating love scene between Sam and Rita. I assume members of the company joked between takes about this inappropriate prospect.
Evidently, the excruciating good will in the script reflects the attachment of Miss Nelson and the co-writer, Kristine Johnson, to a social service agency called L.A. Goal, which assists mentally disabled clients. Two of Sam's congenial cronies were cast from the folks encountered at L.A. Goal.
What the filmmakers haven't done is find a way to reconcile their devotion to good works off the job with an inspirational entertainment that can avoid monstrous presumption.
"I Am Sam" leans on the audience like a sappy ton of bricks. If there's a trick to backing off, Miss Nelson hasn't mastered it.
The heavy hand would be less burdensome if the movie were about half an hour shorter. It slogs on well past a coherent place of resolution: the custody hearing.
There's a line during the hearing, planted with a friendly witness, that summarizes the movie's outlook, less than grammatically: "One's intellectual ability has nothing to do with their capacity to love."
Mary Steenburgen comes out of concealment to play one vulnerable expert witness, but the trial scenes are dominated by Richard Schiff in a no-nonsense performance as the rival attorney, who keeps making a chump of Miss Pfeiffer, whose quips and ruses are not the finest. As a matter of fact, Sam would have a better chance if he could switch lawyers.

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