Sean Penn began the year by directing one of the year's most deeply felt films, The Pledge, in which a frazzled, disconnected Jack Nicholson played a retired cop obsessed with solving the rape and murder of a young girl. He now ends it by acting in one of the year's most woefully manipulative and oppressively pandering offerings: I Am Sam, a dolled-up TV-movie-of-the-week masquerading as profound cinema. Penn, who once threatened never to act again (but, apparently, not overact), shamelessly makes a stab at winning the statue that would somehow validate him as a performer. Twice Penn's been passed over come Academy Awards time: in 1996, when he was nominated as Best Actor for Dead Man Walking, and four years later for Sweet and Lowdown. Now, apparently tired of being hailed as one of his generation's greatest actors by meaningless minions of the Fourth Estate, Penn digs deep only to wallow in the shallow end by playing a retarded and autistic man fighting to keep his bright, well-adjusted 7-year-old daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning), from falling into the state's custody. If only someone would just give him the Oscar and save us all from such mawkish moviemaking.
In the media notes, Penn says all the right things and pushes all the right buttons. As a father, he was "touched" by Kristine Johnson and Jessie Nelson's script (Nelson also directed); he also made several field trips to L.A. Goal, a nonprofit that assists adults with developmental disabilities. It's a role and a film built on nothing but the best of intentions -- a story, often told, of how a flawed system exists to tear apart families meant to stay together. To damn it at all -- its performances, all strident and cardboard; its direction, scattered and needlessly "artsy"; its themes, well-worn and condescending -- is to wander into dangerous territory, where emotions can blind the audience to the faults of a film. Movies like I Am Sam exist solely to make moviegoers weep, to feel good about feeling so bad for those people. The intentions may be noble and pure, but the execution is rarely less than condescending -- especially when a man without developmental issues loses himself in a mass of herky-jerky tics and a voice higher-pitched than his own. In the end, it's nothing more or less than a gimmick, a stunt -- Evel Knievel jumping over 100 retards to get to Oscar.
The movie's grounded in some peculiar reality in which Sam Dawson (Penn) can somehow raise his baby daughter alone -- the mother abandoned the two just moments after giving birth -- but not when she grows older and becomes precious and aware. Somehow Sam has managed to hold his job at a Starbucks (product placement, sunk to a new low) and raise Lucy (so named for "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds") just fine during her infancy, and so the film must construct a painfully self-conscious "disaster" to call into question his parenting skills. All of it leads to a turgid, drawn-out court battle, during which The West Wing's Richard Schiff delivers clichés even Aaron Sorkin wouldn't smoke, a painful separation and a feel-good finale as inevitable as the end credits. Through it all, Sam is surrounded by John Lennon photos, Beatles songs and a Greek chorus of like-(simple)minded friends, who offer support that's not theirs to give.
Penn's hardly the only culprit here. Michelle Pfeiffer, as Rita Harrison -- the power attorney who takes Sam's case only after he badgers and guilts her into it -- is brutally shrill, an archetype made of fingernails and chalkboards. She's meant to be Sam's "normal" world counterpart: the mother who loves her son but is separated from him by an enormous, empty house, a loveless marriage and a work schedule that renders the boy a moot point. Witnessing Sam's torment allows her to see how meaningless her life has become; she becomes a better mother -- a better person -- by knowing Sam. It's the familiar, trite response Hollywood offers in films about those with mental or physical ailments: Hugging the disabled makes you a good person.
Nelson specializes in saccharine family films in which ingratiation is often mistaken for insight, having co-written Stepmom and The Story of Us; hers is the résumé of the softie with the ham fist. With its recurring Beatles songs (covered by the likes of Eddie Vedder, Ben Harper, Sheryl Crow and Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, Sean's brother); close-ups of the adorable Fanning, who's actually quite good; snapshot cameos by Dianne Wiest, Laura Dern and Mary Steenburgen; and its copious weepy scenes of Sam separated from his little girl, I Am Sam wants so hard to be adored and admired -- and for that, you can't help but loathe it.