It seems that every major actor who is anybody has to do the rounds of madness, retardation or eccentricity -“ we have the much lauded A Beautiful Mind, and who could forget Rain Main and Forrest Gump? Sean Penn is the latest to try his hand by playing a man with the intellectual level of a seven-year-old -“ a simple, hardworking man who loves the Beatles and his child whom the mean authorities try to take off him. As in A Beautiful Mind, and as we know from many song lyrics, love is all you need. Penn, of course, was nominated for an Oscar for his role in this film.
Not only does I Am Sam over-simplify a very complex issue, it manipulates every emotion from the opening scene. Sure Dakota Fanning as the child is cute and endearing but the script is pure treacle. This is a real made-for-TV A-grade weepie and a crass attempt to win sympathy for the intellectually disabled. Sean Penn’s idea of retardation is to reprise Dustin Hoffman, right down to the same choice of clothes. Do intellectually disabled men always wear beige chinos half-way up their calves with white socks?
Penn plays only the mannerisms, not the person, but he’s not the only quality actor wasted in this politically correct hash of contrived sentimentality generated by the Christian conservative Right in America. Dianne Wiest, star of so many brilliant Woody Allen films, Michelle Pfeiffer, who puts in an excellent performance as the brittle lawyer, and Laura Dern are also wasted. It goes to show that great actors do not necessarily make great movies. Director Jessie Nelson, who produced, directed and wrote the screenplay, is no stranger to the love overcomes all story. She previously directed Stepmom, where Susan Sarandon played the scorned wife who was perfect, stayed at home and died in the end, whereas Julia Roberts had to give up her career to discover that’s how you really love children. These are similar themes to the ones she reprises in I Am Sam and unfortunately love alone can’t fix everything.