Tom Shadyac, the director of megahits “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Nutty Professor” and “Bruce Almighty” and megaflop “Evan Almighty,” again proves incapable of thinking small in “I Am.” Having experienced an epiphany after a near-fatal motorcycle accident, Shadyac assumes a sincere if half-comic Candide guise to quest after the meaning of life, buttonholing a who’s-who of deep thinkers from David Suzuki to Desmond Tutu. Helmer’s fans are unlikely to enjoy Shadyac’s midlife crisis and descent into nonfiction mode, but seekers of an illustrated feel-good worldview could happily congregate. Paladin has skedded this ego-cosmic docu for February release.
Pic begins with the helmer’s near-death experience and ensuing deep depression. But Shadyac, a former gag writer and standup comedian, quickly recasts himself in the more comfortable “naive dude” role, sheepishly mocking his own pretentions by anxiously asking the elevated likes of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn if they’ve seen “Ace Ventura.” Disillusioned with his rich-and-famous lifestyle, Shadyac divests himself of mansions and yachts and searches for a different set of values. Corralling a motley collection of scientists, authors, journalists, philosophers, historians and religious leaders, he poses two questions: “What is wrong with the world?” and “What can we do about it?”
The answer is woven together from the comments of various great minds: Down-to-earth observers like Zinn and Chomsky are tapped only for an occasional soundbite, while those proposing spiritual readings are free to ramble at length. Kicking off the festivities is “noetic” author Lynne McTaggart (who not only saw “Ace Ventura” but counts it among her faves). She suggests that modern man, misled by mistaken or misinterpreted science, has bought into a mechanistic model of existence that champions competition and individuality as core values, leading to a soulless consumerist society (cue predictable “Greed is good” clip from “Wall Street”).
Several voices chime in to support McTaggart’s conclusions from different vantage points. Upbeat reinterpretations of Darwin, quantum entanglement and “heartmath,” and nifty experiments involving interactive yogurt, suggest an alternate view of a more sentient, interconnected universe governed by cooperation and compassion.
Each stage of Shadyac’s mission is underscored by a nonstop stream of imagery, drawn from archival stock footage and even Hollywood sources (such as “It’s a Wonderful Life”), with childhood homemovies and flashes of Shadyac’s films thrown in. Whatever leaps of logic yawn in the film’s poorly cobbled-together arguments are papered over by its wash of button-pushing images, from regimented soldiers and deadly explosions to flocks of wild geese and sunbeams breaking through the clouds.