Undone by its best intentions, "I Am Sam" is an especially insipid example of the Hollywood message movie. With Sean Penn leading a large cast as a mentally handicapped man raising a young daughter on his own, it's tempting to consider what a meatier film Penn the director would have culled from the same dramatic situation.

Undone by its best intentions, “I Am Sam” is an especially insipid example of the Hollywood message movie. With Sean Penn leading a large cast as a mentally handicapped man raising a young daughter on his own as well as fighting an impervious child-care bureaucracy, it’s tempting to consider what a meatier — and doubtless more despairing — film Penn the director would have culled from the same dramatic situation. Here, Penn the actor is constrained to a purely technical, behavioral perf as Sam, with helmer Jessie Nelson making the most elementary possible movie from a complex welter of emotions, human demands and societal responsibilities. Any early fascination with what dimensions Penn can bring to a role that, by definition, limits his extraordinary range of expression quickly fades; this, combined with pic’s sentimental bathos and a third act that never seems to end, will subdue B.O. prospects in a marketplace suddenly packed with human-scale dramas.

Seven years after her first feature, the more nuanced drama-comedy, “Corrina, Corrina,” Nelson continues an apparent fascination with single dads struggling to raise an only daughter. Here, Nelson and co-writer Kristine Johnson have badly veered off into a near-parody of ultra-politically correct storytelling, in which single parenthood is lionized (and even finally found preferable over an alternative two-parent family option). The movie assumes, in a thoroughly unearned way, a total acceptance of its shaky premise — that a man like Sam, with the mental abilities of a 7-year-old, is the best possible parent because he has more love for his child than anyone else.

Sam, working at a Starbucks, arrives after g.f. Rebecca (Caroline Keenan) has given birth to Lucy. Minutes out of the hospital, Rebecca flees at a bus stop, leaving Lucy in Sam’s awkward arms. He fitfully settles into a routine while raising the baby, but it’s an uphill slog, enough so that even his agoraphobic apartment neighbor, Annie (Dianne Wiest), can’t help but notice and lend some help.

Still, the point of the first section is that Sam can manage. Besides, he has the support of a quartet of pals (Brad Allen Silverman, Joseph Rosenberg, Stanley Desantis, Doug Hutchinson) and is able to pass along his cheerful obsession with the Beatles to his child, who seems to get the Fab Four right away. What could go wrong?

Actually, just about everything: By the time Lucy (Dakota Fanning) is 7, the trouble really begins. Though Lucy is presented as impossibly, even irritatingly, precocious, she is touching when she realizes her mental development and reading skills are leaving Sam behind.

After raising this genuine red flag, the movie becomes purely manipulative by allowing some trumped up charges to send Sam’s problems, and the movie’s, spiraling out of control, setting up a contrived battle of good guys and bad guys.

The lengthy middle section, in which Lucy is yanked away from Sam by Child Services and Sam fights back by hiring uber-lawyer Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer), amounts to a chain of trumped-up conflicts. Rita’s high-driving Century City lifestyle makes Pfeiffer look like a high-strung action figure going nowhere fast, a gross caricature of the self-made power woman so busy she has no time for her husband or child.

Of course, against all odds, Sam draws Rita to his cause to get Lucy back, but he gets a hammering from nasty attorney Turner (Richard Schiff), whose argument that, just maybe, Sam isn’t exactly the ideal dad to raise a child alone is treated by the script with contempt.

Finally, it appears that Lucy has found a new, nurturing home with Randy (Laura Dern) and her strangely off-screen husband, but this potentially interesting turn becomes just another piece of manipulation, as Randy can’t help but observe that Sam — despite some highly erratic and questionable behavior — is the most loving and devoted parent Lucy could have.

Penn’s perf feels like the by-product of research, which isn’t always a good thing. Those sad Penn eyes, so evocative in his past work, are dulled here, and so is the rest of his acting instrument in the service of a physically precise duplication of a mentally handicapped man. In a way, Edward Norton’s turn in “The Score,” in which his thief used a mental handicap as a disguise, gave the trade secret away when it comes to this sort of performance. Penn does a fantastic duplication, but it chokes off almost everything this great actor does best.

Except for the energetic Dern, thesps in the mentally able roles don’t rise above the symbolic types they play, and the problem is most acute with Pfeiffer, who has rarely looked so uncomfortable on screen. In a bizarre, coincidental holiday movie season side note, Rita declares — like Tom Cruise’s David in “Vanilla Sky” and Will Smith’s Muhammad Ali — who her favorite Beatle is.

The Beatles theme extends to the soundtrack, an array of exceptionally weak covers of nine Lennon-McCartney songs. Exorbitant rights precluded using the originals, but the choice of covers utterly clashes with Sam’s adoration of the authentic Beatles, and it only compounds the pic’s ersatz nature. Elliot Davis’ deliberately shaky, zoom-in-zoom-out lensing was done long ago on “NYPD Blue,” and better.

I Am Sam

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Bedford Falls Co./Red Fish, Blue Fish Films production. Produced by Jessie Nelson, Richard Solomon, Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick. Executive producers, Claire Rudnick Polstein, Michael De Luca, David Scott Rubin. Co-producer, Barbara A. Hall. Directed by Jessie Nelson. Screenplay, Kristine Johnson, Nelson.

Crew

Camera (FotoKem color, Deluxe prints), Elliot Davis; editor, Richard Chew; music, John Powell; production designer, Aaron Osborne; art director, Erin Cochran; set designers, Stephanie J. Gordon, Glenn Rivers; set decorator, Jennifer Gentile; costume designer, Susie DeSanto; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Douglas Axtell; supervising sound editors, Paul Timothy Carden, Joe Milner; associate producer, Lisa Campbell; assistant director, Campbell; casting, Mary Gail Artz, Barbara Cohen. Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, Nov. 28, 2001. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 132 MIN.

With

Sam Dawson - Sean Penn
Rita - Michelle Pfeiffer
Lucy - Dakota Fanning
Annie - Dianne Wiest
Margaret Calgrove - Loretta Devine
Turner - Richard Schiff
Randy Carpenter - Laura Dern
Brad - Brad Allan Silverman
Joe - Joseph Rosenberg
Robert - Stanley Desantis
Ifty - Doug Hutchinson
With: Mary Steenburgen, Caroline Keenan, Chase Mackenzie Bebak, Mason Lucero, Scott Paulin.
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