I AM SAM - DVD review


If you were to suggest to someone that, in life, "love is all you need", that person would laugh so hard in your face that his or her spittle would dot your own visage. The cover art of the "I Am Sam" DVD proclaims that "love is all you need". Unfortunately, after watching the movie, I couldn't muster the energy to laugh. Instead, I sat there, shaking my head in disbelief. How dare Hollywood liberalism pretend to be so blind to reality, especially given the seamy aspects of the entertainment industry?

Before I begin to tell you how bad "I Am Sam" is, let me tell you about the best thing in the movie--the music. Sam loves The Beatles (George Harrison is his favorite). The filmmakers were able to get musicians such as Eddie Vedder, The Wallflowers, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, Sarah McLachlan, Rufus Wainwright, and Ben Harper to record covers of Beatles classics. Also, the music score by John Powell is pleasantly enjoyable, too, bouncing mischievously from speaker to speaker. However, artistically speaking, the music doesn't match the mood of the movie--too playful, undermining the "seriousness" of the story.

Now, the bad news. Yes, yes, Sean Penn received an Academy Award nomination for his part in "I Am Sam", and he and Dakota Fanning (who plays Sam's little daughter) were both nominated for Screen Actors Guild Awards. After seeing the movie, you'll wonder why anyone would be impressed by their work.

In "I Am Sam", Sean Penn plays Sam Dawson, a mentally handicapped single-father who works at Starbucks making sure that everything looks clean and neatly organized. This guy's luck is so bad that his daughter's mother is a homeless woman who "just wanted a place to sleep". The mother abandons Sam and the child as soon as she walks out of the hospital after giving birth to Lucy Diamond Dawson (for "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"). Sam's luck gets worse when the police arrest him for attempting to solicit a prostitute even though he has no clue what the prostitute was trying to sell.

At any rate, Social Services takes Lucy (newcomer Dakota Fanning) away from Sam since, at 7-years-of-age, Lucy is about to outstrip her father's mental capacity. Sam needs a lawyer, so he finds his way to Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer). Rita is one of those over-achieving lawyers who only takes big money cases, but she takes Sam's case just to show her colleagues that she's kind enough to defend a miserable man's cause for free.

The story relies on a series of courtroom scenes for drama, but the state attorney always has better arguments. Viewers are meant to cheer along with Sam's buddies (who bring "FREE LUCY" signs into the courtroom, an outrage not tolerated in just about any court of law), but the film's unrealistic and trite vision is too sickly sweet to be swallowed.

Despite the fact that Rita has been written as a caricature of epic proportions, Pfeiffer manages to find a way to bring Rita back to earth. While her character finds herself doing idiotically over-the-top things (such as walking up 30 flights of stairs while wearing high heels and a handsome business suit in order to get a work-out on her way to work), Pfeiffer plays Rita straight, investing the role with just enough conviction so that viewers won't think that she doesn't believe in her own part. On paper, Rita appears to be a parody of lawyer clichés and stereotypes. Onscreen, the role is still not realistic or believable, but Pfeiffer manages to avoid looking silly.

The film takes a cheap shot at Rita in a scene at a diner. Sam complains about a side order of lima beans and corn (he doesn't like mixing green and yellow), and the food service representative looks perplexed. Right after Rita tells Sam not to be difficult, she orders a spinach omelet with a list of variations concerning its preparation. "You got it," the same food service representative replies happily. While the scene is meant to draw viewers' sympathies towards Sam, I didn't believe it for a minute. What's wrong with ordering an omelet made only with egg whites? What's wrong about being annoyed with waiting in line during lunch in today's hard-pressed-for-time society?

The movie also veers dangerously close to setting up Sam and Rita as a romantic couple (yikes!). Sure, both characters happen to have met during moments in their lives when each feels emotionally needy, but a possible romance simply feels grotesque in an already near-debacle.

The Lucy character isn't meant to be a genius, but she has been given dialogue and observational powers available to 7-year-olds only when they are geniuses. Of course, by making Lucy so smart, the filmmakers dug a hole for themselves. If she's so smart, why doesn't she see that she needs someone other than Sam to help her to maturity? Hm?

Believe it or not, it's actually easy to play a mentally handicapped person. Sam has the mental capacity of a 7-year-old--all Sean Penn had to do was regress, basically, and add a few mannerisms. Oh, right, he also had to speak at louder-than-necessary volumes. (In "Rain Man", Tom Cruise delivered a performance that showed a character's emotional development while Dustin Hoffman merely played an emotional blank who shouts once a while when there's a loud noise.) It's a sad day when Penn can't get nominated for his performance as a flamboyant lawyer in "Carlito's Way" but can get nominated for playing someone with a severely limited capacity to do anything.

Finally, the filmmakers have a few lessons to go before they will understand how to properly make a movie. The camera crew used jerky hand-held-camera shots that are downright annoying, and the print's blue tint looks sickly rather than arty. Also, the editors let the film run for too long.

I'm sorry, but love won't save vulnerable would-be-starlets from being exploited by lascivious studio executives and money men. Love won't prevent wars (in fact, wars have been started BECAUSE of love). Love certainly won't make a mentally handicapped person a good parent.

The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks very stable and clear. However, the clarity of the transfer highlights the flaws in the film print. For some reason, some scenes look like there are vertical gelatinous globs in the background, particularly when the camera shoots blue-ish backgrounds. Also, while film grain isn't very apparent, there seems to be mosquito noise a number of times. These problems are relatively minor in nature, but they do distract from the overall quality of the transfer.

Universal and DreamWorks (whose home video products are distributed by Universal) both have strong ties to Steven Spielberg, who had a hand in creating the DTS audio system. Therefore, those two studios have been the most consistent ones when it comes to releasing DVDs with DTS tracks. However, New Line (unlike corporate sibling Warner Bros.) has also been actively including DTS tracks on their DVDs whenever possible.

The "I Am Sam" DVD offers viewers three audio choices: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, DD 2.0 surround English, and DTS 5.1 English. Given the nature of the film, the sound design restricts the use of the rear surround speakers to moments when there are music cues. The entire mix is well-balanced, but the audio tracks are much more subdued (but not necessarily quieter) than your usual action extravaganzas. There are a couple of moments when you'll hear discreet sound effects that fit the onscreen action (the rustling of papers, animals in the background, etc.), but none of the tracks will really blow off your socks. Still, as I've said earlier, the music in the film is quite a treat, from the covers of Beatles classics to the music score by John Powell.

English subtitles (as well as English closed captions) support the audio.

Billed as a "New Line Platinum Series" release, the "I Am Sam" DVD boasts a slate of bonus materials that would've vaulted the disc to the top-of-the-class had it been released just a few months ago.

New Line understands DVD priorities, so first things first, you can elect to watch "I Am Sam" while listening to the audio commentary by director/co-screenwriter Jessie Nelson. Ms. Nelson's commentary isn't very good as she lapses into silence quite a few times, and there isn't much that she says that can't be found elsewhere on the DVD.

Next up is "Becoming Sam", a lengthier-than-usual "making-of" featurette that runs around 42 minutes. Comprised mainly of interviews with members of the cast and crew, the mini-doc feels rather self-congratulatory. Apparently, everyone involved in the project is a genius who deserves to win every accolade in the world.

There are a couple of deleted/alternate scenes with optional commentary by Nelson. These scenes don't really reveal anything beyond what we already know about the characters or the story. Besides, the movie is overlong as it is.

Finally, the DVD includes a theatrical press kit (reproductions of text pages of Production Notes and information concerning the cast and crew that were used to provide members of the media with information concerning the film's theatrical release) as well as the film's theatrical trailer for your viewing pleasure.

Clicking on the New Line icon on the DVD's main menu will access the DVD's production credits.

Those of you with DVD-ROM access will be able to use the DVD's "Script-to-Screen" feature which allows you to read the script while watching/accessing the movie. There are a couple of weblinks, too.

You will find chapter listings printed on the inside cover of the DVD snapper case.

Entertainment Value:
Although the script doesn't give Michelle Pfeiffer much material with which to work, she single-handedly saves the movie from becoming an outright disaster. Well, okay, the Beatles songs that pop up on the film's soundtrack are a treat, but they weren't worth the pain of sitting through this movie. If you're thinking about buying something associated with "I Am Sam", I recommend that you purchase the film's soundtrack CD, a delightful compilation that has gone "gold" (selling more than 500,000 copies).


Film Value