By using a quote from Kramer vs. Kramer, I Am Sam acknowledges its debt to the popular, Oscar-winning 1979 film about a father’s fight for custody of his son. Writer-director Jessie Nelson (The Story of Us, Stepmom) adds to the custody fight plot a father who is retarded and autistic, providing Sean Penn the opportunity for a virtuoso performance not unlike the one that won Dustin Hoffman an Academy Award in 1988’s Rain Man.
But Jessie Nelson is neither a Robert Benton nor a Barry Levinson and her script is so seriously flawed in so many ways that even the least discerning soap fan will find credulity stretched to a point of exasperation. To set up the situation, Nelson has Sam (Penn) father a baby with a homeless woman about whom nothing is told; that part is rushed by quickly in an attempt to avoid close scrutiny.
Nelson shows Sam wide-eyed with wonder at his tiny daughter (nice), but immediately upon leaving the hospital, the mother disappears into the street crowds, never to be heard from again. Of course, if the mother stuck around, it would be a very different movie, so it’s convenient to rush right by these details so that Sam is in the position of a single father.The trouble is, in the first ten minutes here, the foundation of the story is incomplete and unexplained, requiring the viewer to take the setup on faith, rather than giving the story that follows a solid underpinning.
It gets worse. Sam is shown being kept up all night by the crying baby, feeding her, changing her diapers, apparently with only occasional advice from a reclusive neighbor (Diane Wiest). In a rapid bit of montage, we fast-forward till the girl, Lucy, is seven–seven years in which Sam, with the mental capacity of a seven-year-old (he has trouble making change), never once runs into a problem in raising his daughter that would attract the attention of the authorities. Barely half an hour into the movie credulity is beyond stretched–it’s snapped.
Then Sam gets caught up in a misunderstanding so that his situation does get him in trouble with the authorities and the fight to keep custody of his daughter is on. He gains the pro bono services of a flashy attorney, Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has it all–a successful career, a husband, a son, and a house right out of Architectural Digest. It’s predictable from the get go that she will turn out to be a mess (disdained at the office, husband messing around, relationship with son badly strained). Sam — good daddy. Rita — bad mommy. The trial scenes never gain any momentum, as they are interrupted by intervening events. But maybe that’s just as well since those scenes are so badly written, they make Judge Judy look like Shakespeare.
The only real plus in I Am Sam is in the acting. Penn makes Sam real and likable; his scenes of bonding with his daughter have genuine screen chemistry, helped in no small way by Dakota Fanning, the talented youngster who plays Lucy. She’s cute, but not cloying, smart, but not precocious. Pfeiffer does what she can with a poorly conceived and badly written part. Small roles are finely realized by Wiest, Laura Dern, and Mary Steenbergen.
But Barrymore and the Duse herself could not salvage this script. When Nelson fills the soundtrack with Beatles songs (peppering the dialogue with references to the lyrics) and then throws in a bunch of lovable dogs as well, it’s pretty clear that she knew she was in big trouble.