It is extremely rare that actors acting like retarded adults come off as anything but frauds, & Sean Penn despite his wonderful talent evident from the majority of his films is as faux as they come playing Sam as an over-the-top hand-flapping joke of a retardo. If the film had cast a high-functioning Down's syndrome actor I Am Sam just might have been a more convincing film, but then, without a big star at the center, the cheesy script would've barely qualified for an "issue of the week" TV movie.
The actors are hamstrung by the truly crappy script which ranges from failed slapstick comedy (Sam trying to pull a car off a tow-truck with his bare hands, Sam trying to make espresso drinks & spraying himself with coffee) to the cheapest kind of tearjerker "ain't he a cute moron" vs "pity the moron" scenes.
The issue could've been dramatic without the cheap tricks: A retarded adult trying to keep custody of his child. Nobody involved could quite convince themselves it wasn't all a big hardy-har-har laugh riot. So the sympathy rings as hollow as the comic relief.
Michelle Pfieffer as the twitchy neurotic upperclass lawyer doing her first pro bono work is likewise written as a cartoon, & very surprisingly she's much better than Sean at doing something worthwhile with bad material. She comes off as a tweeking cocaine addict but she's only supposed to be addicted to coffee, so she certainly overacts; even so, it's more interesting than when she is in a film delivering a merely realistic performance. She's convincing as a "successful" nutter, whereas Sean Penn just seems like an actor pretending to be a moron.
Dakota Fanning as Sam's child is the kind of Walter Keane big-eyed child casting that requires only cuteness to get buy, & if she had turned in an inadequate performance, she would've fit perfectly alongside Sean. But amazingly enough she turns in the only completely convincing performance, throwing the rottenness of the film off balance.
From her temper tantrum that gets the attention of child protective services, to her guilty feelings for having caused so much more than she intended, to her declarations of love for her father, to her protectiveness of him, to her slow warming to her foster mother (Laura Dern) & conflicted feelings for liking the woman -- Dakota's role took her through so many levels of emotion it's almost shocking how well she could do all of it, while the adults in the film could not do half so well with their simpler & parodic characters.
The film succeeds or fails on the strength of Sean's performance, however, not Dakota's, & therefore the film fails. It is laughable when it's not supposed to be funny, & it is embarrassing when it is supposed to be funny. The important issues of the film are lost in the whelter of over-acting of badly written shtick.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl