Written and directed by Jessie Nelson (the brains behind such seminal works as Stepmom and The Story of Us), I Am Sam is the green eggs and ham rendition of the custody battle melodrama. I Am Sam is so preposterous mouths will remain agape through must of its running time, not least of which because of the ready-to-burst vein on Michelle Pfeiffer’s left temple. Now that Starbucks has the coffee market cornered, their PR department has nothing better to do than hype their equal opportunity clauses. Sean Penn’s titular mental handicap is the corporation’s loveable, clumsy busboy: he’ll clean your coffee-stained tables and compliment your menu choices with Gumpian care (“That’s a wonderful choice!”). The film’s screwy intro sets up Penn’s Rain Man as a sucker left to play Mr. Mom when a homeless woman he apparently shagged ups and disappears soon after brining baby Lucy into the world. Six years later, an Asian prostitute picks up Sam at the local IHOP and Social Services soon comes a knockin’.
Cue egregious Beatles reference: daughter Lucy was named after the one in the sky; entire scenes are scored to the band’s music; and Sam and his balloon-carrying best buds recreate Abbey Road’s cover outside Payless. Sam is an asexual riddle—though clumsy at the workplace, he manages to keep a clean house. His fondness for papier-mâché and color-coordinating sugar packets suggests OCD or latent homosexuality though his mentally handicapped friends are the only ones screaming Judy Garland’s name. Sam’s nelly friends are all too ready to show off their appreciation for Meryl Streep’s performance in Krammer vs. Krammer when Sam makes his appearance in family court. Nelson flagrantly heightens the father-daughter separation ritual by instigating chaos during the girl’s seventh birthday party. Pfeiffer’s Eames-happy society lawyer nixes her inner-bitch via pro bono work for the Messianic Sam. Her scenes with Penn egregiously emphasize what the judicial system doesn’t know: the misunderstood Sam is the only one in the world who knows how to raise a child right.
Once Lucy does the foster home circuit, I Am Sam loses steam and skimps out on a much-needed final courtroom scene (you know the kind: the one where the proud-but-dopey dad gives it good to the insensitive judicial system). In the end, though, I Am Sam works best when it’s unfortunately (sometimes intentionally) comedic. Lucy takes Sam to a burger joint despite Dad’s fondness for IHOP pancakes and his friends help him record an answering machine message. These scenarios are purposefully set up to showcase crazy-folk behavior; as atrocious and feeble-minded as these moments may be, the result is incredibly funny, if not completely unintentional on the part of the filmmakers. Accompanied by a score seemingly composed by a hyper-caffeineated Pied Piper’s Orchestra, Penn does wonders with the film’s preposterous material. His performance is tailormade for K-Paxians.