Sean Penn is sort of scowling on the cover of this month’s Talk magazine (which, as it turns out, is the last Talk magazine, dramatically folded as of 18 January). Penn’s look is familiar, but still, it’s not quite so grim as you’ve seen it in the past. While bearing remnants of this “greatest actor of his generation’s” signature don’t-fuck-with-me look, it also makes a certain concession, as if to say, “The fight just doesn’t seem worth it, and besides, I have better things to do.”
Such a concession makes sense. He’s been working hard for years. He’s made amazing art, as an actor in such wide-ranging projects as Carlito’s Way, Dead Man Walking, and The Sweet Lowdown (the last scene is one of the most heartbreaking in all movies—“I made a mistake! I made a mistake!”), and as writer-director of The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, and The Pledge. Plus, he’s hung around with famously volatile personalities (Madonna, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson). So now, if he’s not precisely “matured” in a conventional sense, at least he’s assumed another set of priorities.
Most crucially, the 41-year-old Penn has told interviewers again and again, his family with Robin Wright, is his reason for breathing. This makes him mellower than he used to be on some points (he says he appeared on Friends last year because he and more importantly, his daughter, are fans of the show), but also firm in his opinions. He no longer needs to take aim at easy targets who hardly seem worth the effort—say, tabloid photographers (whom he punched and spit at), his former friend Nicolas Cage (whom he accused of abandoning his talent), or his U-Turn director Oliver Stone (whom he accused of being an animal). And if he’s got to spend a few minutes berating Bill O’Reilly publicly, well, maybe it’s for old time’s sake. And more power to him.
The Talk cover story, like most recent coverage of Penn, is occasioned by a new movie, I Am Sam. Simultaneously a surprising and understandable choice for Penn, the film concerns the legal and emotional struggles of a mentally retarded man, Sam (Penn), to retain custody of his seven-year-old daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning). As the film opens, a homeless woman with whom Sam apparently had a one-night hook-up, goes into labor while Sam rushes across town from the Starbucks where he sorts sugar packets and cleans tables. Arriving at the hospital breathless and thrilled, just after the birth, he holds the infant tenderly, while the mother looks on appalled. She wants nothing to do with him or the baby, and promptly exits the film.
Sam, by contrast, is thoroughly in love with his child, naming her for his favorite Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (the film’s soundtrack is crammed with Beatles covers, which sound fake and thin). And until she turns seven (which is, according to the film’s schematic script, his own mental age), he devotes himself to her welfare and everything is more or less fine. When Lucy finds herself able to read at a higher level than her dad, in steps Children’s Services, in the imposing form of Margaret (Loretta Devine). Distraught but resourceful, Sam gets a high-powered attorney, Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer), who, due to office politics, her own chaotic life, and the film’s inclination toward Ally McBeal-ish overstatement, is implausibly shamed into taking the case pro bono. What follows is an increasingly strange plot mix of old-school soap, innocuous slapstick comedy (that shot of Sam falling down the stairs hat you’ve seen in the trailer), earnest social problem film, and contrived courtroom drama.
In combining these elements, I Am Sam draws directly and awkwardly from 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer (Sam and his friends helpfully quote from Robert Benton’s movie, in case you don’t make the connection yourself). The film updates the issues and the technique: Elliot Davis’s handheld camerawork suggests that what’s going on is urgent rather than cloying, challenging rather than predictable. But the shamelessly manipulative script, by producer-director Jessie (Corinna, Corrina) Nelson and Kristine Johnson, will not let these characters be: they must run the gamut of movie-of-the-week emotions… A to B. Rita has the toughest row to hoe, as she must be the bright career woman in dire need of life and parenting lessons from Sam. She has a young son and a marriage that’s collapsing, despite her vigorous denials and hackneyed sublimation in her work, and while Pfeiffer is sharp enough to make even the most dreadful role close to watchable (see, for instance, What Lies Beneath), here she is hard up against it.
Perhaps the most alarming scene has Rita, looking coiffed and polished as usual, visiting Sam after he has lost the case (they are appealing, of course). Having also lost his job, he’s now holed himself up in his apartment. She entreats him not to give up, and suddenly, he’s had it: “People like you don’t know! You’re perfect. People like you don’t feel anything!” At which point, Rita collapses, appropriately, showing how very much she does feel… something: “I’ll never be enough!” she wails. Ow ow ow.
As Rita’s thematic opposite, Sam’s kindly, agoraphobic neighbor, Annie (Dianne Weist) fares just as badly. She tries to help him with Lucy but, like agoraphics tend to do, gets all panicky when she considers leaving her apartment. The point seems to be that women who are either too much “outside”-oriented, or too much “inside”-oriented, make inadequate parents. The middle ground might have been occupied by Lucy’s foster mom, Randy (Laura Dern), but whenever she tries to be sensible and loving (her supposedly supportive husband mostly stays out of the picture, for unknown reasons), she’s cut off at the knees by Sam’s unexpected appearances at the house, now walking dogs—so adorably caring for their runny noses!—in order to make ends meet. Lucy just loves those doggies.
Rita and Randy, along with the lawyer who’s working to take Lucy away (Richard Schiff in an egregiously one-note part) eventually come to believe that Sam is the very bestest parent possible, no matter the real world logic that eventually, his limitations will have actual effects on his child’s experience and understanding of her universe. Perhaps surprisingly, the fact that this is emphatically not a real world movie works out worst for Sam. So what if the other characters are stereotypes? You’ve seen them before and you’ll see them again. Sam, however, could have been something else.
There is a case to be made for the film’s efforts to humanize him (and it has been made in a Washington Post editorial, by Special Olympics executive officer Tim Shriver, 22 Jan 02). The film underlines his generosity, vulnerability, and resilience. And, thank goodness, Sam doesn’t float off into Forrest Gumpian flights of aphoristic wisdom, or turn into a Rain Man’s master class in full-immersion tic-acting. He even shows signs of being a funny, warm, and exciting character, prompting you to imagine why someone as exacting and hard on himself as Penn might take the part (perhaps, you think as your mind wanders during the film, his kids will get a kick out of it).
But too often, Sam’s “difference”—the very difference that you’re encouraged to comprehend and not judge—is the focus. Despite Penn’s visible—often painfully visible—efforts to make him sympathetic, Sam is a definitively limited and recognizable movie character. Even as I Am Sam argues that his boundless love is enough (“Love is all you need,” etc.), it does so with emblems of his conventionally defined “limits”—awkward gait, loud voice, and gestures that make “undifferent” people so uncomfortable. When Sam tearfully cuddles up to a closed-circuit tv image of his daughter (testifying in court) in order to express how much he loves her, it’s a Big Movie Moment, crass and corny enough to make you want to look away. Not because what he’s doing is disturbing, but because the movie uses what he’s doing so disturbingly.