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[whitespace] 'I Am Sam'
Sean Yawn Sean Penn and Dakota Fanning bond in schmaltzy 'I Am Sam.'

In the Bored Room

The Penn is not mightier than the film in sticky 'I Am Sam'

By Richard von Busack

    You do not like this I Am Sam?
    I do not like this I Am Sam.
    Would you, could you on a plane?
    Not on a plane, or on a boat
    Or with a porn star in a moat
    Of ice cream, beer and dollar bills.
    I Am Sam would ill me still.
    Do you respect this actor Penn?
    I do, but only now and then.

ENOUGH. In I Am Sam--the title comes from Dr. Seuss--Sean Penn assays Sam Dawson, a Los Angeles man with an IQ of a child age 7. In an absentminded moment, he fathers a child with a homeless woman who wanders off. He works at Starbucks, so naturally he makes enough money to support the child in a home of his own. Fortunately, there's an agoraphobic woman (Dianne Wiest) next door who is always at home to take care of baby-sitting and diapering lessons.

The System intervenes. To facilitate this plot development, Sam is unwittingly picked up by a hooker--was this Penn's inspiration? This awkward scene certainly punches a hole in the "family movie" ambience. The police find out, and the social workers are called, since a man so solicited may be unfit for raising a child. All of the world's lawyers have disappeared except for Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), an expensive, tense Century City number. Pfeiffer's role here is just as unlikely as anyone else's, but she's cool and beautiful, and the audience is palpably glad for a relief from Penn in close-up, pulling faces. Naturally, Rita has a bad relationship with her own husband and child. Her gentle, if mentally backward, client is just what's needed to put her back in touch with the human world.

Some may sob over the scenes of Lucy clinging as she's hauled away to a foster home (by Laura Dern--she's better off). Dakota Fanning plays the daughter, and she's a frighteningly professional junior thespian who hits her marks with laserlike accuracy--there's not a breath of any raw childhood emotions in her role; she might have been manufactured by the same engineers who constructed Haley Joel Osment's kid-in-a-box in A.I. The film's bets are further covered with a Beatles soundtrack, delivered by a host of musicians puttin' on the hits. If you aren't liquefied, the emotional associations of the songs may squeeze the tears out. (Fanning's character's full name is Lucy Diamond--say no more.)

The heavy product placement will more than pay expenses: Starbucks, IHOP, Blockbuster and Big Boy Restaurants are practically characters in I Am Sam. Thus this rigged, bottomlessly sticky film reveals a canny, calculated streak. If it fails, the filmmakers will be covered financially. While you can blame director Jesse Nelson's unquenchable appetite for Penn's overacting, it's Penn who shamelessly out-Jerry Lewises Jerry Lewis in mawkish klutziness; it's Penn who had the misjudgment in taste to pursue this schmaltz to the limit and beyond.

I Am Sam (PG-13; 133 min.), directed by Jessie Nelson, written by Kristine Johnson and Nelson, photographed by Elliot Davis and starring Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer and Dianne Wiest, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the January 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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