Sam the sham

I AM SAM directed by Jessie Nelson, written by Nelson and Kristine Johnson, produced by Nelson, Edward.


directed by Jessie Nelson,
written by Nelson and Kristine Johnson,
produced by Nelson, Edward Zwick,
Marshall Herskovitz and Richard
Solomon, with Sean Penn, Michelle
Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning and Laura Dern.
120 minutes. An Alliance Atlantis release.
Opens Friday (January 25). For venues
and times, see First-Run Movies, page 76.
Rating: N

Rating: N

who do you blame for a mess like I Am Sam? Do you start with writers Kristine Johnson and director Jessie Nelson? Their idea about a developmentally delayed father (Sean Penn) fighting alongside a high-powered lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) to win back custody of his seven-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning) screams movie of the week.

Does the sentimental and simple-minded vision come from the director or from self-indulgent actors Penn and Pfeiffer? In the end, it doesn’t matter. The project ends up in the ditch.

I Am Sam exalts the mentally challenged, and Penn — one of his generation’s most gifted actors — turns his character into a saint. Hampered by the script and his director, Penn shows none of warm-hearted, hard-working Sam Dawson’s negative traits, because if he showed a single flaw we might question his ability to raise his precociously wise daughter.

And that would diminish the film’s feel-good quotient. This movie is all about feeling pleased with oneself.

In a recent interview, Penn talked about how much he hates schmaltzy Hollywood movies and even had the audacity to pooh-pooh Gone With The Wind. Here’s a guy starring in one of the worst dramas I’ve seen in years, and he’s picking on Gone With The Wind? Puh-leeze.

Pfeiffer’s turn as stressed-out, unlikeable lawyer Rita Harrison is astoundingly flat. Pfeiffer, who — remember? — dazzled us in films like The Fabulous Baker Boys, Dangerous Liaisons and The Age Of Innocence, has taken giant leaps backwards and forgotten the art of subtlety. She twitches, paces and flails about in an effort to convey Rita’s unhappiness.

You get the feeling that both Penn and Pfeiffer had their egos stroked by overzealous director Nelson (Corrina, Corrina), who encourages their worst acting instincts.INGRID RANDOJA

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