I Am Sam

A review by Mike Shea   Movie Rating: ( * * * * · )    DVD Rating: ( * * * * * )

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I Am Sam reminded me of the old spaghetti westerns where white guys were painted up and portrayed as indians. Why can't we see a movie about a disabled individual played by a real disabled individual? Must our retarded hero be played by an ex-lover of Madonna? How incestuous is Hollywood anyway? I asked a long time friend who said "It's got to be pretty hard to work with a retarded actor" but isn't that the point of the movie? Apparently we speak one thing and do another with this film. Still, this gripe aside, I Am Sam is a movie that took my blood-opera loving ass and made me cry at least four times. It's a movie that made me feel older when I finished watching it.

I heard a story about a guy who bought audio speakers from a blind guy because he thought the blind fellow would have some acute sense of sound like Spiderman. He got home to realize he bought a set of Bose. Current popular films try to make us believe that everyone with a disability is brilliant in another area. Cube all give us mentally disabled individuals and paint them as geniuses. Sam isn't. Sam is a normal mentally retarded waiter at a Starbucks. His only superhero ability is that he truly loves his daughter. While many people say their children are their number one while spending 18 hours in the office or in another womans bed, he builds his entire life around his daughter's mental well being. Much like everything in life, some beurocratical organization has to come in and fuck everything up.

The strength of I Am Sam can't be articulated in a blurb on the greasy back of the VHS box at Target, nor in this shoddy review. The deep characters, even the anti-retarded union worker Michelle Pfeiffer is at such a lower level of subtlety in her character that she sticks out like jam on a white couch. Later she does have a couple of the most emotionally powerful scenes when she confronts, probably for the first time, some of the gaping holes in her life but early on, her yuppy in a nervous breakdown routine is wildly obnoxious. Still, I can't think of a movie as emotionally charged as this.

There are a couple of problems with I Am Sam. Largest was the idea that only a big name Hollywood actor can play a retarded guy. Some smaller things didn't help either. There was a character inconsistency when Sam tells Rita that she must leave her husband. Here's a guy who doesn't understand when a child psychologist is going to tear him apart, but he understands the subtleties of Rita's marriage so well that he can form an opinion on it?

The DVD of I Am Sam is wonderful. It has a brilliant colorful 1.85 to 1 16x9 enhanced transfer. There are both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS soundtracks. The DTS track represented the Beatles remake soundtrack as well as I could imagine. There is a highly informative directors commentary with Jessie Nelson that, although completely void of humor, reveals a lot about the film and working with mental retardation. It's probably one of the best solo commentaries I have really enjoyed. New Line tops themselves again, pushing the fierce competition up a notch by working hard on a DTS track for a non-special effects movie. I applaud them.

I Am Sam is the kind of movie I really would have hated as a kid. It's a warm and heart touching film about fighting against all odds. Its the kind of picture that if done badly, would be a travesty. It is done wonderfully and would be highly entertaining to anyone who doesn't always need a gun on the cover. I highly recommend it.