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Friday, January 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

'I Am Sam' sours from all the sweetness

Seattle Times movie critic

"I Am Sam"


*
With Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianne Wiest, Dakota Fanning, Laura Dern. Visit the Web site. Directed by Jessie Nelson, from a screenplay by Kristine Johnson and Nelson. 125 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language. Several theaters.
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Rarely can a film's essence be summed up in its very first shot, but such is the case with "I Am Sam," which starts off with a pair of hands sorting out sugar packets. It's an appropriate start for a movie so drenched in sweetness that it's devoid of reality, and so free of leavening flavors that, despite some good performances, it's ultimately sickening.

Sam (Sean Penn) is a developmentally disabled man who works in a Starbucks, obsesses over the Beatles, watches movies with his friends, and — the typical condescending Hollywood shorthand for such characters — wears pants that are too short.

Through a series of implausible events, he becomes the single parent of an infant daughter, Lucy. Seven years pass, presumably uneventfully (!), until Sam's parenting rights are challenged and he must hire a hotshot lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) to defend his right to be a dad.

(How on earth did Sam manage for seven years, on his near-minimum-wage job and minimal support system? Never mind; the film doesn't really want us to think about it.)

Sam, played by Penn with a gaping mouth and flawlessly styled hair, is a perfect saint, devoted to his daughter and loved by all. Lucy (Dakota Fanning) is a blond angel wise beyond her years. ("Did God mean for you to be like this?" she asks Dad.) Their neighbor Annie (Dianne Wiest), who helps with child care, is also saintly — and an agoraphobic. We all have our disabilities, the film tells us. And tells us. And tells us.

Offsetting all this goodness is — well, somebody who's good at heart, but a bit lost. Rita, Sam's frazzled lawyer, devotes herself to her career and neglects her husband and (oh, the irony!) her child.

Does Rita learn a few truths about parenting from Sam? Does the movie steal not one but two scenes directly from "Kramer vs. Kramer," implying that writer/director Jessie Nelson and writer Kristine Johnson couldn't be bothered to think up anything new? Does Nelson resort to every possible trick to make Sam seem pathetic (a pitiful party hat in one scene; a pratfall in another)?

And is this movie an insult to developmentally disabled people in turning Sam and his friends into cute, sweet caricatures, and in refusing to acknowledge the possibility (except in the voices of really mean characters) that Sam may indeed, despite the best of intentions, have genuine difficulty being an effective parent?

Yes, yes, yes and yes. "I Am Sam" is shameless.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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