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Sam The Sham 

Sean Penn embarrasses himself in mentally challenged film

Has there been a more shameless movie released over the past 12 months than I Am Sam? And could there possibly have been a less likely actor than Sean Penn at the center of such a debacle? One of today's most compelling performers, Penn has never been known to pander to the lowest common denominator. His steely work in Carlito's Way, Dead Man Walking and Sweet and Lowdown never catered toward audience approval, and his various directorial efforts (most recently the overlooked Jack Nicholson gem The Pledge) are hardly anybody's idea of a "feel-good" night at the movies.

So how do we explain I Am Sam, except to conclude that after a career of playing the Hollywood outsider, Penn finally decided an Oscar would look nice on his mantle after all? Like Scent of a Woman, with its repugnant (and, yes, Oscar-winning) Al Pacino performance, I Am Sam is an acceptance speech disguised as a movie, a brazen attempt to snag its star an award by placing him in that ultimate Oscar-bait role: the handicapped hombre. (New Line Cinema released this at the last possible second in New York and Los Angeles -- Friday, December 28 -- to keep it extra-fresh on voters' minds.)

Academy members have a history of being suckered, but I can't believe that even they would fall for this embarrassment of a film -- or the embarrassing performance at its center. Penn plays Sam Dawson, a mentally challenged man who's forced to bring up his young daughter from birth (the mother's a drifter who splits immediately after squeezing out the kid). With very little help, Sam, who works as a busboy at Starbucks, manages to raise little Lucy until she's 7 years old (at this point, she's played by newcomer Dakota Fanning, who's so adorable she melts away all traces of cool-eyed critical detachment).

But at the age of seven, Lucy's intelligence level now matches that of her father; that fact, coupled with an absurd script contrivance, leads to attempts by various social workers and lawyers to take Lucy away from Sam and place her in foster care. Through yet another ridiculous plot turn, Sam secures the services of high-priced attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer) who, like almost all career women in the movies, is close to cracking from the strain of a busy practice, an unhappy homelife (her son and husband both ignore her) and a gnawing emptiness inside her. But guess what? As she spends time with simple Sam, a person who doesn't feel the pressures of the fast-paced corporate world, she learns to relax, to shuck aside her materialistic values, and to connect again with her son! I gotta admit, this part had me pulling out my handkerchief -- albeit to pat off the saliva hanging from my mouth as it hung open in utter disbelief at the desperate ploys running unchecked before me.

Truth be told, Pfeiffer is quite good in what is arguably the worst-written role of her entire career (yes, I'm including Grease 2). In fact, her contributions, as well as those of a stellar supporting cast (Dianne Wiest, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Schiff, Laura Dern), are about all that prevents this from landing a bomb rating. Penn, on the other hand, elicited a cringe every time he appeared on screen. His performance is all hand waving and eye popping and tongue wagging -- I once knew a guy who delighted in giving insensitive impersonations of mentally challenged people, and here was Penn channeling that very same schtick.

To pick apart the entire script would require a special insert section in this paper, but ponder this: It's practically a miracle for two parents of normal intelligence to raise a child from infancy, and yet Sam manages it for seven straight years with no complications? And ponder the film's flipside while you're at it: Non-PC implications aside, wondering whether a mentally challenged man can raise a girl all the way to adulthood is a legitimate question, so is it fair for this movie to treat those characters asking the question as if they were inhuman beasts?

A couple years ago, Penn famously made entertainment headlines by publicly criticizing his friend Nicolas Cage for selling out as a serious actor by making claptrap like Con Air and Gone In 60 Seconds. Penn was absolutely right, of course, but now here he is, making a picture about as bad as any on Cage's recent resume. There's a saying about people in glass houses throwing stones; at this point, Penn might want to reinforce his walls with adamant.


RATING (out of four):

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