I Am Sam

  • Sean Penn's Impression of Corky from "Life Goes On"
  • Michelle Pfeiffer Plays (?) a High-Strung Bitch
  • The Bizarre Notion That Beatles Songs Contain the Secret Emotional Life of the Mentally Handicapped


Directed by Someone Who Learned Everything They Know About The Mentally Handicapped from Rain Man
"You told me I was going to be working with Sean Penn in some powerhouse drama! You told me this would save my career! And he keeps following me around with his stupid coffee talking about Yoko?! Goddammit, you're fired!"

I Am Sam? I Am Sick To My Damn Stomach.

When Michelle Pfeiffer dies and goes to Hollywood Hell, I hope she plays Mrs. Olson in Mary-Kate and Ashley's Buckingham Weekend Gin Bender in which she walks in on the twins tag-teaming Prince Harry, and is forced to become "the mom he lost" while Pfeiffer and Prince Charles (played by Crispin Glover) learn to be good parents by studying the royal houses of yore. All involved should likewise be punished for I Am Sam. Except for little Dakota Fanning, who is just taking orders as the Spielbergian Enlightened Wonder Child. I just hope all you mongoloid perverts who think Maxim's "Mary-Kate and Ashley's Eighteenth Birthday Countdown" is funny just leave her the hell alone. That's kiddie porn for men too timid to buy kiddie porn. So please, you debaucherous lechers, leave Dakota the hell alone. It's bad enough that she had to be in I Am Sam.

I'm so offended I'm not even going to attempt "film criticism" with this one. I'm so pissed that I'm confused on where to begin. Well, if Jessie Nelson were filming me right now, she'd shake and spin the camera around my head to express "confusion," because having a camera shoved in your nostrils really captures what it feels like to be retarded. And let me go ahead and get this out of the way: I grew up around this, and part of my family still works in counseling, but I still haven't the slightest clue what euphemistic bullshit I'm supposed to use to describe Sam. I won't say "special" or "challenged." That's insulting bullshit trying to bury its meaning in syntax, as if changing the name changes the condition. I grew up around handicapped kids, and there's no more shame in being "blind" as in being "visually impaired." So I'm going to refer to Sam as "retarded"—a word with absolutely no shame. "Stupid" is insulting; it implies that you don't use the ability you have. "Retarded" implies that you lack natural ability. So that's what I'm going to go with. Sam is retarded; I Am Sam is stupid.

I Am Sam learned everything it knows about retardation from Rain Man and Charly. Sam has one of those jobs that only exist in movies where a company is looking to improve its image by cashing in on a cheap product placement. He works at Starbucks carrying coffee, which he does for the eight year span of the movie. They make no apparent industry upgrades during that time, and I'm not even sure Starbucks has been around that long anyway, but who cares? Sam has taken in some homeless broad, whom he gets pregnant. They had to live with each other for at least nine months, but Sam, even though he's got a Rain Man obsession with schedules, doesn't seem too phased as the mystery woman pops out Lucy, walks out of the hospital, and gets on the bus out of Sam's life. Oh well. That leads to adorable scenes of Sam screwing up diapers. Thank goodness for Dianne Wiest, the Next Door Guardian Angel, Annie. That's right, Sam's next door neighbor graduated Summa Cum Laude at Juliard (!) and spends her life teaching little girls piano. Fortunately, this gives Annie time to come over and help Sam with the diapers, which are pinned with a John Lennon "Give Peace a Chance" button. Oh yeah, I almost forgot: "Lucy" gets her name from "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds." Why? Because she's a sparkling little diamond herself, and Paul's next door neighbor's kid was named "Lucy," or something like that.

Ok, so what's the deal with all this Beatles stuff? I think what they're going for is this idea that the innocence and purity of Beatles songs is a direct contrast to the materialistic yuppies who used to value the Beatles' ideals of peace, goodness, and love. So Sam is metaphor through which to channel this spiritual ideal: essentially, if materialistic yuppies would just dust off those old Beatles albums (or find a Sam), they would be able to love their kids and spouses. So why, exactly, distill this Beatles idea through a retarded guy? Their essential sweetness of nature, of course. And they just...I don't know...connect, you know? Sam has the mind of a seven year old and cannot make coffee at Starbucks, but he can make highly abstract connections between Beatle anecdotes and parenting. They even play the Yoko card right out of the gates: Sam understands why Lucy might want a new daddy because when Yoko came along while they were making the White album, "John wanted to do different things. John wanted to do different things." We're asked to buy that breaking up Sam and Lucy would be like the courts breaking up the Beatles, which puts Family Services in the Yoko role, I guess. And when Sam succeeds, he tells us it's like when John told George that "Under the Sun" was one of the best songs on Abbey Road. They've got to be kidding. Sam and his Retard Chorus even stride across the crosswalk with yellow balloons. Fine, the Beatles are your Baby Boomer icon of innocence and love, but I'm still trying to figure out the connection to Sam. Maybe if we imagine a conversation between the Beatles themselves....

(Scene: 1968, Abbey Road Studios. The Beatles, in the role as the spiritual archetypes of peace, purity, and goodness, are dropping acid and smoking pot while some roadie runs out to get fish and chips.)

Paul: "'Strawberry Fields Forever' really captures the essential purity of the human soul."

John: "For once, we agree, Paul. 'Strawberry Fields' is a song about the simple goodness inside each of us that will bring peace to the world."

George: "It's a fantastical ride through the dreamscape of our spirituality. A beautiful poetic vision of our relationship with the pure goodness of the Creator."

Ringo: "Yeah, it's kind of like we're retarded, in a way. I think this song will really speak to retarded people."

I don't want this to sound nearly as bad as it will, but it's been my vast experience with the 70 IQ crowd that they are rarely inspired by the abstract philosophy of the Beatles. Most of them I know are inspired by The Undertaker. Or Stone Cold Steve Austin. And especially The Rock. That's not an insult. They smell what the Rock is cookin', not parse and apply John Lennon's neo-transcendentalism.

But what's really got me pissed off is the portrayal of Family Services and the counselors. Yes, Family Service agencies make bad decisions. But these people are made out to be as evil as PCG&E from Erin Brockovich, like they poisoned Sam's drinking water when they hauled Lucy out of the apartment. And our heroes attack them with all the logic and tact Julia Roberts does (and you know my feelings on that, already). The Evil Black (!) Lady from Family Services breaks up Lucy's birthday party and some snot-nosed little shit with a type-A(sshole) dad blurts out, "Lucy says he's not a real daddy," and the shit's dad pushes Sam the retarded guy. The social worker ignores all this and scoops up Lucy and heads to the shelter. Now I'll be the first to admit that the places are difficult, but it's not because it's some Dickensian orphanage. Ninety-nine percent of social workers are not evil. They have one of the most difficult jobs in America and get paid peanuts to do it. It's like the "evil" lawyer says to Michelle Pfeiffer: "You win, you get to leave. You know who I get to see again, day after day? The kid." He's absolutely right, but a scene later Jessie Nelson has him badgering poor Sam on the stand like he's Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. He stops just short of, "Sam, you can't handle the truth!" No, Sam can barely understand the question, which is the point. And never, never, never, have I seen a custody trial of this nature end with a lawyer Johnny Cochran-ing a retarded guy on the stand. To cheer for Michelle Pfeiffer in these scenes is to take the position that these greedy damn social workers, who take great joy in ripping kids away from their natural parents, are selfish because they've given their lives to a job that would send the rest of us home crying daily. Yes, social workers have screwed up. But the vast majority of the time they're right, as they are with Sam, and you don't see any movies about the thankless jobs they do, living right at the poverty line themselves. We get movies about power lawyers who are congratulated because they do one good deed and figure out that they're supposed to pay attention to their spoiled rotten little shit kid. Big frickin' deal.

It gets worse. Basically, the foster parent (Laura Dern) is very nice and seems to treat Lucy very well. Little Lucy misses her daddy, and Dern is made out to be a real bitch because she's skeptical when Sam shows up two hours late, or doesn't come at all (Like all bad things that happen to Sam, it's just an accident. The mean old bus driver left him. He gets arrested for soliciting a prostitute at IHOP, even though no definitive answer is given and no money is exchanged. And shouldn't she be over at the truck stop anyway?). Well, Dern works with Sam the best she can, from my perspective, but the film still positions her as a castrating villain who obviously hasn't learned the employee's creed at Starbucks or listened to Yellow Submarine lately—I'll even bet she likes Yoko. Even Sam admits that she should be Lucy's mommy, which is kind of the end arrangement anyway. That's the whole point of joint custody. I realize Sam is retarded, but the judge probably isn't. And doesn't it make sense that Lucy's primary residence should be the more stable environment? Especially when the foster mom has been so compassionate toward the father, who lives near enough to visit every day? I guess not. It's hard enough finding kind, loving foster parents for kids who may have love but not the means to grow, but this piece of shit movie makes decent foster parents out to be assholes who aren't good parents because they haven't listened to the Help! album lately. That's beyond insulting. That's offensive.

And I haven't even gotten to the Greek Chorus of General Kooks who make up the comic relief. They've got a hilarious smorgasbord of mental and physical defects: one guy's supposed to be autistic, I think...well, he counts stuff a lot. There's one with Down's Syndrome. His speech impediment is pretty damned funny. And there's two other general crazies. Included in their wacky antics is bringing "Free Lucy" signs to the big trial! I think what really made me mad is that I thought the movie was over as Sam gave his Big Speech....BIG GODDAMN SPOILER ALERT! but it turns out to be the big speech from Kramer vs. Kramer. And so I had to sit there for another forty-five minutes while Michelle Pfeiffer has her big Moral Transformation. Gawd, I don't even want to get into that. She has a big pool in her glass house, she neglects her son, and she yells, "Goddamnit!" into her cell phone when she's not abusing her secretary. Do you need to know anything else?

Essentially, I Am Sam is some neo-hippie bullshit crying out to ideals that should never have left college. It reminds me of some pot-fried college professor who drones on about the glories of communism because he never stopped suckling the teat of the university. I Am Sam makes some good points about the postmodern materialism, but it's all been said before by better boomer filmmakers in infinitely better movies. This film's rationale is that of some guilty born-again boomer in a mid-life crisis who peels the "Funkin-groovin'" bumper sticker off their old VW van and pastes it on the bumper of their SUV—they just don't get it. And Sean Penn should be embarrassed of himself. And screw Jessie Nelson. How crap like this gets made is beyond me. Let's just take the last scene. Sam is wearing a soccer referee's jersey and snorting into his whistle. He drops the ball, and Lucy goes down and scores a goal (No wonder Hockey Dad is mad: They've got Sam refereeing the damn games!). Sam hoists her into the air and sprints in a circle while the rest of the kids chase them. It's the only true moment of the film: Dakota Fanning sticks out as the only participant unscathed. Perhaps Haley Joel should take her to the Oscars. I mean, his mom went two years ago, and it'd be better than taking one of those little kiddie porn Olson bitches. Speaking of the Oscars, I'll bet Sean Penn actually goes this year if he's nominated. What a joke that would be. I hope he gets drunk and makes a sloppy pass at Nicole at the Fox After-Party. Then Russell kicks his ass.

The Pitch:
0 "Life Goes On"
0 Abbey Road
0 I Am Sam
See It For:

Sean's intense counseling session after seeing Madonna and Guy Ritchie's wedding photos.