What in the world has gotten into Sean Penn? The man was great when he played bad boys like the rat-shooting, girlfriend-abandoning, Django-obsessed guitarist in Sweet and Lowdown, but with Sam in I am Sam, Penn has chosen such a saccharine role it almost beggars belief.
This choice of characters has him playing an accidental father, a man with a heart of gold and the intellect of a 7-year-old. When the homeless woman who he takes in leaves him and their infant daughter Lucy, Sam is forced to cope with fatherhood. All is well until his daughter herself turns 7 and starts to hold herself back at school, not wanting to be smarter than her father. The big bad authorities take Lucy away and he must try to get her back with the reluctant help of hard-driving lawyer Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Penn works hard to portray a man who desperately loves his daughter but who is emotionally unable to cope with anything approaching adulthood. Sadly, none of his weird tics and trembles is convincing. Instead, his performance seems to add up to a strange method observation of -- who? Hard to tell. I don't think he knows. An inconsistent script doesn't help a whit, nor does director Jessie Nelson's shameless manipulation of the audience to get us to believe, as Sam does, that "Love is All You Need" (all sentimental Beatle's references intentional).
To add insult to injury, Sam's purpose in the movie -- like so many Hollywood movies that highlight the simple, the foreign and the black -- is to be the great teacher of us all. Think Rain Man, K-PAX or Bagger Vance. In this case, simple Sam helps the overly ambitious woman lawyer -- who is neglecting her own kid for the sake of her career -- understand the great mysteries of parenthood. Sheesh.
Tearjerker. The Random House Dictionary's definition is "a pathetic story, play, movie, or the like; an excessively sentimental tale."
That describes I am Sam perfectly. And now that he's done it, I sure hope that Sean has gotten the tearjerkers out his system. One is more than enough.