Cinema Signal:

The Social and Emotional Lives of Individuals with Mental Retardation

. "I Am Sam"

What's wrong with this picture?

In "I Am Sam" Sean Penn pays homage to his friend Dustin Hoffman's "Rain Man" performance. Or, proves he can play retarded/autistic as good as. Or imitates (as the highest form of flattery). Or, adds another page to his acting portfolio. Whatever be the motivation behind this effort, waiting 14 years doesn't make the movie theme any fresher or more needful.

To balance the limited appeal of an autistic savant, "Rain Man" brought in the big boxoffice guns of Tom Cruise. "I Am Sam" attempts the same kind of supercharge with Michelle Pfeiffer, somewhat reprising her social consciousness, let-me-make-a-difference character of "Dangerous Minds". I'd have to say that her hyperventilating out-of-control mother, high achieving big office-upper floor success lawyer is not her shining hour.

But to the story. Sam Dawson (Penn), a man with the mental age of 7, conceives a child with a street person 9 months after a one-night-stand and names her Lucy Diamond Dawson after "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds". He's a Beattles fan. He then goes on to raise Lucy with some help from his friendly, understanding support group, not the least of which is Annie (Dianne Weist) , a next door neighbor, pianist, sympathizer cum laude and recluse. The rest of his group consists of his "gang", men who share Sam's mental limitations and strictly structured social calendar. These are his companions and Greek chorus.

Now, Lucy reaches 7 years of age, which is where we essentially pick up on her as played by Dakota Fanning, a precocious wonder if there ever was one. Lucy has the mental wherewithal to understand not only what her father's level is, but she anticipates how her educational advances might threaten their deep mutual love. She attempts to adjust to his capabilities as she begins to teach him.

Things are strained as the Dawsons grapple with how to play the cards life has dealt them but it soon gets out of hand as Sam's handicap comes to the attention of Child Welfare. In a court hearing, Lucy is taken from him (for her protection) and given to Randy Carpenter (Laura Dern) and her husband, first as foster parents then as potential adoptive parents. The arch bad guy in this action is lawyer Turner (Richard Schiff) who pulls out all the stops to convince the judge that Sam is incapable as a parent.

Sam follows up on advice from his friends and seeks out his own lawyer, turning to the phone book and selecting the biggest and best firm. He winds up in the office of Rita Harrison (Pfeiffer) who is an obsessed, disorganized mess of a high-achiever with a proclivity toward road-rage and a troubled home life. In any case, she attempts to shoo Sam away like a bothersome tick. She just doesn't anticipate the single mindedness of the retarded, and Sam's reappearances in her office and life bring her finally to the decision we all knew she'd come to, to represent Sam Pro Bono, for free. This is as predictable with this script as the notion that there's pop corn in the lobby.

From there it's a matter of getting into how the court system works in cases like this, how the cards get stacked against the powerless, and how a 100% winning lawyer might lose her first case. Don't, however, lose too much sleep over how this turns out (but you will have to go see it to find out). Suffice it to say that before all is said and done we are asked to believe character transitions, unexpected attractions and flip flopped value systems in less time than it takes to say, "Why didn't you warn me?"!

Pfeiffer, an actress in enough demand to send many an offered script back with nary a regret, shoulda' passed on this one. What she does here is a colossal waste of her considerable talents.

No doubt director Jessie Nelson ("The Story of Us", "Stepmom" - a man intent on cornering the market on sentimentality) and the studio fell in love with the precocious Dakota Fanning to play young Lucy. First, the weak screenplay makes her too smart -- why not just have her a child of normal intelligence, not one of genius proportions? Second, the big miscalculation in this casting is that Fanning is too precocious for her own acting good. Her brightness and mental superiority shines into every crevice of her time on screen while her face beams with an "aren't I just so sweet and smart" quality every chance she gets. A lot less of this would have made the point of the story just fine, thank you, but directorial gushiness overcame subtlety or nuance. In a venture about mental retardation, the enterprise is swamped by too much precocity.

In a more grown up instance of overdoing, Richard Schiff would be well advised to dig for a change of character from his by now deeply rutted one on TV's highly regarded "West Wing". Here, he still sports the smug, "I got there 10 minutes before you did" superiority that he does to the point of tedium as Communications Director Toby Ziegler. His is the number one bad guy part of the story, but some new shadings of character would have demonstrated that he has some range for us to consider. Beyond that, Nelson and Kristine Johnson's script does him no favors by its creation of a lawyer so antagonistically bent on personal destruction.

Laura Dern's mannered expressions wastes no opportunity to show us she's going through something. Mary Steenburgen delivers a cameo, the brevity of which protects her from harmful miscalculation. And perhaps the two acting heroes of the piece are Joseph Rosenberg and Brad Allan Silverman who, as real life actors with disabilities meet all the specifications of their parts in fine order.

The technical proficiency of the production is led by cinematographer Elliot Davis' creativity with natural and dramatic lighting. Using the theme of Sam's single minded attachment to Beattles music, we're treated to a sound track of great talents on the Beattle songbook, most adamently, Sarah McLachlan's "Blackbird" and Sheryl Crow's "Mother's Nature's Son" which flows with rich control over end titles. Aimee Mann sings "Two of Us" and The Black Crowes renders "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds". It's a must get album.

Finally, I'd like to say that while there were so many weaknesses, the intentions behind making this movie were, at least, right minded. But I'm not so sure what the real intentions were. Let's just say that if this film makes one person more understanding of another in a plight such as Sam's, then it will have justified itself.

Estimated cost: $22,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $33,000,000.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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