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IN SHORT: A dynamite pairing of Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer. [Rated PG-13 for language. 130 minutes]
We know our long-time readers well enough to know they can figure this one out: A mentally handicapped man manages to father a beautiful baby girl, who he raises solo because mom ran off immediately after birth. What happens next?
Well, of course, the Government is going to try to take the girl away. And, of course, he's going to try to fight back. And, of course, the ultimate goal is to leave the audience in tears -- either of sorrow or joy -- by the time the end credits roll. You can't get more manipulative than a movie like I Am Sam. The big surprise, to us, is that all the buttons that got pushed did so when we didn't expect them to be pushed.
It's clear from scene One that Sam Dawson (Sean Penn), a clean up guy at an LA Starbucks, is a wee bit obsessive compulsive. By the third edit in that scene we've learned that Sam's intelligence capped at about the seven years-old level -- this work ethic is a way of coping with mental retardation. He is also a huge Beatles fan, naming his newborn daughter Lucy, after the famous picture by Julian Lennon. If you don't "get" that, don't worry. Sam will explain everything he does in terms of a Beatles song and, if he doesn't, the film will. Co-writers Kristine Johnson & director Jessie Nelson have seemingly taken a whole string of Lennon-McCartney songs and then written a story to fit with the lyrics that comprise the soundtrack. It's a fine notion but by the time we got to the end credits, we never wanted to hear another Beatles song again.
Sam's daughter Lucy (Dakota Fanning) is remarkably advanced for her age. Not just her intelligence but her emotional maturity and protectiveness of her dad. That starts to crack as she gets exposed to the cruelties of other six year olds in kindergarten. One slip on Sam's part and, just as you knew it would, the heavy hands of the Child Services Agency comes crashing down on our hero. They pose the question: what happens when Lucy hits age eight and surpasses her dad, smart-wise?
Enter Attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), who will be embarrassed into taking the case and whose name continues the run of Beatles references in the film. It is how Pfeiffer and Penn's characters make their true connection. Harrison is the typical driven feminist type whose lifestyle precludes being the kind of hands on parent that Sam is. Rita's son Willie feels ignored by both his parents -- Sam is more than willing to give marital advice -- and there's a building resentment there that never rises to the boiling point.
Giving a little depth to the story is the revelation that Sam, for all of his intelectual problems, is accutely aware of his shortcomings. The emotional buttons get pushed with increasing force and climax as Pfeiffer's life comes crashing down around her head at the moment when Sam needs her the most.
What surprised us the most, given how utterly manipulative every aspect of I Am Sam is, is that we were sucked in hard. Sean Penn buries himself under Sam's disability and his utter trustingness is perfectly balanced by Pfeiffer's character, who wants nothing to do with him. We were sitting in a puddle 43 minutes into the movie. Our ex wouldn't have lasted ten minutes.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to I am Sam, he would have paid . . .
And we officially declare it, we're middle aged. Without enough life experience, we would have dissed I Am Sam as an emotionally manipulative chick flick a decade ago. No, it's because, at one point, Pfeiffer's character will say "George was my favorite Beatle" and we sniffled -- this less than a month after Harrison passed -- when some kidlet without enough life experience loudly whispered "that's the one that died!" to his friend.
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