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Callous Manipulation



Michelle Pfeiffer remains one of the most beautiful women in the world. She has those great cheekbones and gorgeous green eyes that manage to convey both intelligence and unsuspected vulnerability. Early in her career, Pfeiffer's performances in Into the Night, Married to the Mob, Dangerous Liaisons and especially The Fabulous Baker Boys established that she had talent to match her stunning looks. And if her work has been less distinguished in recent years, her fans have written that off to the material she's appeared in, patiently waiting for the right role to fall her way again.

Despite his tempestuous off-camera reputation, particularly during his turbulent 1980s marriage to Madonna, Sean Penn has established himself as one of the finest actors of his generation. Because of his edgy public persona, we think of him most immediately in roles like the juvenile delinquent in Bad Boys or the condemned prisoner in Dead Man Walking. But Penn's variegated pallet of characters is nothing short of amazing, from the surfer dude in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, to the callow spy in The Falcon and the Snowman, to the weak mob lawyer in Carlito's Way, to, best of all, the egomaniac jazz guitarist in Sweet and Lowdown.

So what in the world are Pfeiffer and Penn doing in an agonizingly false mess like I Am Sam? Besides "embarrassing themselves," the only answer I can provide to this confounding question lies in my conviction that nobody in Hollywood has, in a favorite phrase of grandmother's, "the good sense God gave a gopher." Though actually, I hate to insult the good name of your average gopher.

Co-written and directed by the incompetent Jessie Nelson, I Am Sam is the story of mentally retarded coffeehouse employee Sam Dawson (Penn), who has the intellectual abilities of a 7-year-old. Penn plays Sam as a man who can't keep his eyes all the way open or his mouth all the way closed. Sam is cheerful in the way a parrot is cheerful, always chirping the same phrases over and over again.

In the first of this picture's several preposterous premises, Sam impregnates a homeless woman who abandons father and child within hours after giving birth. As she flees, she explains, "All I wanted was a place to sleep." Sam is depicted as a man without an apparent sex drive and certainly without a modicum of sex appeal, but we're expected to accept that a woman of normal intelligence (her homelessness is asserted but never explained) would sleep with him and live with him for at least nine months. I don't think so.

Next, we're supposed to accept that Sam, availing himself only of some occasional advice from an agoraphobic piano teacher named Annie (Dianne Wiest), can successfully raise daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning) from infancy through first grade. This is a man who can barely read and can't be trusted to make coffee or run a cash register. And we're supposed to believe that he can prepare formula and take a baby's temperature. I don't think so twice.

But the most annoying demand this movie makes on us is that we take Sam's side when Child Welfare authorities place Lucy in a foster home with an obviously kind and loving young woman (Laura Dern) who quickly bonds with the child and prepares a petition for outright adoption. We know we're supposed to root for Sam because he elicits the assistance of high-powered custody lawyer Rita Harrison (Pfeiffer), who takes his case pro bono and proceeds to occupy the screen like a luminous model for a Vogue fashion layout.

In short, this picture is excruciating. It fills the soundtrack with Beatles' songs, not one sung by the Beatles. It asserts that George Harrison didn't know how to write until "Here Comes the Sun." Hello: "Taxman"? "I Need You"? "Think for Yourself"? "If I Needed Someone"? "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"? "Something"? Ignorance is forgivable. Aggressive ignorance is extremely annoying.

This picture goes on for an agonizing 133 minutes, every one of them like a drug-free root canal. Hyping this decayed material that retreats to a courtroom and stays there for several epochs, director Nelson suddenly resorts to flash cuts and swish pans. Throughout, Nelson positions her camera too close to her actors and the effect is the same one you get at a cocktail party when someone with halitosis insists on boring you to death while breathing right in your face. Nelson is just plain cruel to Pfeiffer, allowing her to look at Sam out of the side of her eyes and fan herself with a stiff hand, not just once, but twice. Penn, meanwhile, steals his performance from all the most obvious scenes in Dustin Hoffman's work in Rain Man. I admire these two performers a great deal, and what they've been reduced to here makes me absolutely want to cry.

So how do I account for Penn's Oscar nomination? Gophers.

Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer waste their talents in the woefully misdirected melodrama I Am Sam.
  • Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer waste their talents in the woefully misdirected melodrama I Am Sam.

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