ninth symphony films - movie reviews

I AM SAM (2001)

DIRECTOR  -  jessie nelson

RATED  -  pg-13

GENRE  -  drama

LENGTH  -  132 minutes

RELEASED  -  31 december 2001

DISTRIBUTOR  -  new line cinema

OFFICIAL SITE  -  i am sam

ESTIMATED BUDGET  -  $22,000,000
i am sam - a shot from the film


buy the dvd from i am sam at

buy the dvd from i am sam at

a mentally retarded man fights for custody of his daughter.

the title for the film was inspired by the character from the dr. suess book "green eggs and ham."


picture from i am sam

picture from i am sam

picture from i am sam


two out of four possible stars

What could have have been just another teary, sentimental journey about a mentally challenged man and his cute daughter, suitable for fans of melodrama, is in reality a challenged screenplay that punishes its actors. The colorful career of Sean Penn has been littered with emotionally taxing and controversial roles during the last couple decades. Each new job he undertakes is different from the last. He has even taken a step behind the camera in certain instances and put on the director's hat. Sometimes his endeavors have been successful. He is, after all, a very talented actor.

But in this case, the film itself overshadows his performance in this film. Specifically the editing and the screenplay. Faults in the screenplay could have been resolved during production or in the editing room. But because the editor didn't have the courage to leave some of Sean Penn's performance on the cutting room floor, the film as a whole suffers. Even Michelle Pfeiffer turns in a credible performance as the lawyer who's bullied into taking on Sean Penn's case on a pro-bono basis. sSe's got a few speeches (of the usual melodramatic variety) which are effective by themselves, but are way-off-the-mark as far as their appropriateness in the film.

By this, I mean that the performances in this film, while powerful, seem to come out of left field at times because of the structure and editing of the film. For example, during an especially pivotal scene, Michelle Pfeiffer's character bursts out with a speech bemoaning her existence, proving to Penn's character that she is not the perfect human being he thought she was. Penn and she then embrace in a strange hug, which slowly becomes out of focus and fades to black. It's uncertain here whether the two characters begin a sexual relationship after this scene, and it's an issue that's really never fully addressed in the film.

In fact, during a later scene, Michelle says something to the effect of "I think I'm getting more out of this relationship than you," to Penn's character. Now this statement would seem to imply that they're dating. But other than that hugging scene and that line of dialogue by Michelle, there's nothing to indicate during the film that these two characters are anything more than lawyer and client. So their relationship is ambiguous at best, which is a major failing in how the movie is presented, considering that Penn's character has the mental capacity of a seven-year-old.

Not only is the connection between the two not fully expressed by dialogue or action, but also, at the end, it's unknown what these two people mean to one another. Perhaps it's because penn plays a seven year old in a thirty-year-old's body, thereby requiring the plot to match his intellect. And additional flaw concerning the "intellect" of this film is the basic story. Although it resembles something closer to an NBC movie of the week, the movie could have been changed to something more original. Particularly the ending of the film. In true sentimental fashion, the story ends on a gleefully insipid note of mentally challenged glee, destroying any chance for the movie to become in the least bit unique.

In fact, there is a spot in this film which, if the credits had rolled right after it, would have made the ending more powerful. As it is, the film extends beyond this pseudo-ending for about a half an hour, really tacking on an unneeded portion of the story. If the editor had chopped off the last thirty minutes or so of this film, the movie as a whole would have been more effective. But aside from its problems in script and editing, this film also pulls a bait-and switch. As viewers, we are promised a "heartwarming story about the power of the human spirit." And the filmmakers accomplish this by visual and audial manipulation, never allowing the actors and their performances to carry the film.

And because the performances are nothing if not strong, the strange cinematography and editing serves only to overwhelm any viewer who tries to focus on the characters rather than on the many focus changes occur per minute in the film. During just about every scene, the cinematographer makes a habit of shaking the camera about and racking the focus back and forth. It's not that subtle shaking, like you'd see on Law & Order, but a more violent variety, like somebody's running the camera, even though it is stationary in many of the scenes. Perhaps it was the cinematographer's attempt at matching the chaos occurring inside sean Penn's head.

As a whole, this film contains some decent, if not moving, performances. But any value from what these actors are able to accomplish is literally covered up by over the top cinematography and a convoluted script, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The "cute" scenes, which always include a group of Sean Penn's mentally challenged friends, are somewhat amusing, but they don't always make sense. The serious drama and the comedy in this film are completely removed from one another.

It's like they can't co-exist with one another except in separate scenes. To include comedic scenes is fine, but they're so foreign to the rest of the film, that they don't seem to belong. And this serves only to reinforce the idea that this script is sub-standard. As a "thinking" picture or vehicle for a group of dramatic actors, it doesn't do the talent in this film justice. It's almost a paradox that while the script is so bad, the actors can show a decent amount of emotion through their characters. If anything, the value in this film stems from a group of good actors trying to make a bad script good. Sean Penn is convincing as a man with the intellect of a seven year old.

Review by Kelsey Wyatt.

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