Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I Am Sam.

I Am Sam (Jessie Nelson, 2001)

Category: Sad movie about mentally challenged people. We’ve covered this before. In the interest of not horribly offending more people than I already have, I’ll just let you discuss this category on your own for a minute. Here’s an icebreaker

Alright now that you’ve gotten that out of your system, you big jerks, let’s talk about the other major category for this movie: sad movie with Sean Penn. A two-time Oscar winner (for Mystic River and Milk), Sean Penn is widely regarded as one of the great actors of our time. And I don’t necessarily disagree with that, it’s just… well let’s play a game. It’s called Sad or Not Sad. We will play this game with the films that Sean Penn has starred in in the last decade.

1.  Fair Game (2010): NOT SAD, per se. It’s a dramatization of the Valerie Plame affair, so it’s Important, if not sad.
2.  Milk (2008): SAD. A biopic about Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco politician who was murdered in 1978. Way sad, what with the murder and all.
3.  All the King’s Men (2006): KIND OF SAD. But more just terrible, I hear. A remake of the 1949 Oscar-winning film about a fictionalized version of Louisiana governor Huey Long, who was also murdered (bit of a trend here). I haven’t seen it, but the fact that he’s murdered must be kinda sad.
4.  The Interpreter (2005): NOT SAD. Political thriller that I remember being kind of bored by.
5.  The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004): SAD. No one saw this movie, about the life of Samuel Byck, who attempted to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House in order to kill Nixon in 1974. Oof. He did not succeed and committed suicide. It’s really quite a crazy story. But again, Sean Penn dies at the end of the movie. Jeez.
6.  21 Grams (2003): SAD. Like, oppressively sad. He plays a guy who receives a heart transplant from a man who was killed in a car accident. And it gets all crazy and interconnected and oh my God just so depressing from there.
7.  Mystic River (2003): SAD. So good, but oh so sad. He’s the father of a girl who’s murdered. So many deaths in these films!
8.  It’s All About Love (2003): I DUNNO. I had never heard of this movie, but its Wikipedia page is full of great stuff about it, if not the actual plot. It was the first English-language movie from this weird Danish dude named Thomas Vinterberg, and was called all kinds of great things by various critics, including “a colossal folly.” Look for my review of this film in my new blog, Taste My Colossal Folly.
9.   I Am Sam (2001): SAD. Ahem.

So they’re not all sad, but they’re all pretty heavy. And this doesn’t include Dead Man Walking or The Thin Red Line or others. The man knows how to get sad. And, not coincidentally, how to win awards. Lest we forget

My familiarity with this issue: Oddly, I own the soundtrack to this movie, even though I had never seen it before today. That’s because the soundtrack famously features a bunch of covers of Beatles songs by modern artists, as the rights to the original songs were unobtainable at the time. I quite enjoy the versions of “Two of Us” by Aimee Mann and her husband/Sean's brother Michael Penn, and “Golden Slumbers” by Ben Folds. I am less into Grandaddy’s version of “Revolution.” I’m just kind of in awe that they were able to get Grandaddy to do a song for the album. Also, we haven’t yet discussed that this movie is also about a child custody battle. I have not personally been involved in one of these (yet), but I know from movies such as Big Daddy and Over the Top that they are often amusing and/or feature arm wrestling. I’ve got my fingers crossed. (Srsly, watch that video. It is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in a Stallone picture. And that’s a high bar.) 

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: "Sam Dawson has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old. He works at a Starbucks and is obsessed with the Beatles. He has a daughter with a homeless woman; she abandons them as soon as they leave the hospital. He names his daughter Lucy Diamond (after the Beatles song), and raises her. But as she reaches age 7 herself, Sam's limitations start to become a problem at school; she's intentionally holding back to avoid looking smarter than him. The authorities take her away, and Sam shames high-priced lawyer Rita Harrison into taking his case pro bono."

What I thought of the movie: Well. I have a fundamental problem with the premise of the movie, which is, I suppose, fairly important. And so I felt the movie was, in a way, offensively bad, as a result of that. But the thing is that I feel really guilty for feeling that way. I don’t mean to be unfeeling or rude or whatever, and I know that the character is meant to be a loving, nice, wonderful person, despite his challenges. But from the beginning of the movie, the idea of Sam raising Lucy on his own (he does have help, yes, but he is essentially raising her on his own) was kind of frightening. I don’t know if that’s insensitive or offensive of me to feel that way, but the movie tells us that Sam has the mental capabilities of a seven-year-old. What are we supposed to do with that information? Conveniently forget about it? The movie wants us to remember it sometimes and forget it at other times. For example, Sam causes a scene in a restaurant because they don’t have his favorite food, and instead of seeing the upshot of this scene, we cut away to Sam and Lucy dancing at the school Halloween party while the Wallflowers sing “I’m Looking Through You." That’s not cool! You really can’t do that.

Whatever realism or truth or honesty the film had to begin with is further squandered by the choices that director Jessie Nelson makes: a ton of montages intended to endear us to Sam and convince us that he’s capable of being a father, the use of those ever-present Beatles covers to gloss over the harsh realities of what Sam and Lucy’s world would actually be like, the atrociously designed scene at Lucy’s birthday party, and on and on. The whole thing just made me extremely uncomfortable, because I didn't want to swallow what the movie was trying to force me to swallow. (I really apologize for that last sentence.) And this was all apparent to me before Michelle Pfeiffer, the stock overburdened bigshot lawyer who secretly has a heart of gold and comes to believe that Sam is the best person to take care of Lucy, even shows up and we go through that thing where getting to know Sam sorts her #whitegirlproblems out. Ugh.

How I, John Krizel, related to this movie: Well I loved all the Beatles songs! No srsly, as much as I poked fun at Sean Penn earlier, it’s impressive to see him become the character of Sam. He assimilates perfectly in the scenes where he appears alongside actors with actual mental difficulties. It’s a performance that I admired while still not buying the movie that it anchored. Let me note for the record that I didn't hate all of it. For a while there, namely the parts with Laura Dern as the prospective foster mother, it looks like the movie might become more even-handed, offering the opposing viewpoint that Sam maybe really is unfit to be Lucy’s father. But then that doesn’t really happen. Look. I feel bad not liking this movie. It’s not like The Lovely Bones where I so clearly relished it. But I’m sorry. What the movie tries to do and the terribly mawkish way it tries to do it just weren’t OK with me. This kind of sums it up: the tagline of the movie is, "Love is all you need." And I'm sitting here feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge, the Grinch and Bill Belichick all rolled into one because I'm trying to figure out how to say something like: when it comes to being a parent, I have to disagree.

How I felt after the movie ended: Uncomfortable is the word of choice here. It kind of made me think about Sean Penn’s whole image, as one of those stereotypical loud Hollywood liberal activists that are demonized by the likes of Bill O’Reilly and co. (He doesn’t do himself any good by hanging out with Hugo Chavez, by the way.) They’re an easy target, because they have lots of money and they usually come off as really pedantic and self-centered. It’s as if they believe that the views they express in their movies are vital and should have a really profound effect on the public discourse. And I guess sometimes movies do do that. But a “message movie” like I Am Sam, which so relentlessly shoves its viewpoint down our throats, does nothing in the end except contribute to that negative stereotype. So I guess I’m saying that this movie emboldens Bill O’Reilly. I’m sorry. I REALLY didn’t want to hate on it. I promise.


  1. I think there are sad *moments* but this is generally a weird, yet uplifting (?) movie. You're right that the premise is ridiculous: retard raises Dakota Fanning. The soundtrack alone underscores the hope that Sam represents to his daughter, Catwoman, et. al. At the end of this movie we are supposed to feel like it's Dakota Fanning's world and we're just retarded in it. Blackbird singing in the dead of nightttttt

  2. My advice to Sam is that the world meets nobody halfway. When you want something, you gotta take it.

    Also, this is the worst thing that I've ever seen Stallone do... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76mrcTEphfc