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Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Go ahead and cry, you'll feel better

I Am Sam

Rating: * * *
Director: Jessie Nelson
Running time: 133 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

"Relentless" is the operative word for "I Am Sam," a tearjerker that never gives up. It will have the most cynical of viewers fumbling for a hankie, even as they are mentally dragging on a cigarette and muttering, "Come on, give me a break." Unawares, they'll be swept away by a strong current of sugary sentimentalism, their hands outstretched before they are lost among the waves.

News photo
Sean Penn in Jessie Nelson's "I Am Sam"

"I Am Sam" is the tale of a mentally challenged single dad and his adorable 7-year-old daughter. It is, in fact, a love story with a Freudian twist, based on the premise that little girls first fall in love with their fathers, and fathers see their daughters as eternal little princesses. In one scene, for example, the father goes to see his daughter, bearing a gift of flowers, like a nervous date. In another, she lashes out at him with a familiar dating refrain: "I hate you! You don't call me, you don't come see me! I hate you!" The result is an emotional seesaw, cause for both joy (at seeing such a level of love in a father-daughter relationship) and rage (at how maudlin and manipulative it can get).

There's no denying the excellence of the performances, however, especially by Sean Penn in the title role. No heavyweight Hollywood acting career is complete without a mentally disabled role (see Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Gere et al.), and Penn as Sam makes an impressive attempt to outshine them all. Though parts will recall Hoffman in "Rain Man," Sam has so much more warmth and inner happiness, and a knack for connecting with others.

This comes to the fore in his relations with daughter Lucy Diamond (a stunning debut by Dakota Fanning), so named because he's a Beatles freak. The way they are with each other is the way many children dream of being with their parents or, heck, the way we all dream about being with any loved one: in a union unspoiled by mundane worries or personal ambitions, uninterrupted by work, cell phones or appointments. One of the loveliest segments in the film shows Lucy napping on the grass in Sam's arms, her voiceover in the background asking sweet questions: "Daddy, why is mustard yellow?" "Daddy, why do some men go bald?"

But when Lucy starts school and realizes that she is intellectually outgrowing her dad, she holds herself back from learning anything more. Every night, he reads her his favorite book, "Green Eggs and Ham," the only one he can read with confidence. Lucy is struggling to spare him any embarrassment over the increasing gap in their IQs while at the same time acutely embarrassed when her schoolmates ask, "Is your father a retard?" That's when the authorities step in and decide that Sam is an unfit parent.

Sam's pain at losing Lucy, and vice versa, is terrible to see. On the advice of close friends, Sam approaches razor-sharp lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer). Rita tries to brush him off but is eventually shamed into taking the case pro bono.

This is where director Jessie Nelson and writer Kristine Johnson go overboard in contrasting the supposedly unfit Sam and the seemingly successful Rita, who is actually too busy and stressed to communicate with her small son or invisible husband at whom she's always yelling over the cell phone. Long years of professional achievement at the cost of her emotional development have reduced Rita's patience to that of a mosquito. It's only through talking to (and learning from) Sam that Rita begins gradually to redeem her personal life and recover her humanity. By the third reel, she's weeping with gratitude and spewing things like: "I'm the one who's getting the most out of this."

Despite what Pfeiffer brings to the role, Rita remains a cardboard cutout -- a shrill, ambitious lawyer who finally sees the light, and the process isn't very subtle or credible. The only scene in which she isn't on this conveyor belt is when she and Sam hug for a long moment, then the scene fades out. A level of depth could have been added if Nelson had pursued their relationship a bit further, but clearly, the director didn't want to go there. She wants us to snivel and not much more. So ladies, think waterproof mascara.

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