Sam the Man (2000)

“If he loves her, why did he have to have all those affairs? That’s the question I have to answer… in the book.” So says Sam Manning (Fisher Stevens) — writer, artist, complete jerk. Sam’s planning to marry Cass (Annabella Sciorra) when he finishes his second book. But he can’t finish it. He’s three chapters in and can’t write another word. To top it off, he’s started confusing himself with his protagonist, Walker, who spends his days cheating on his girlfriend with every pretty woman who looks his way and wallowing in self-pity. How will it end for Walker and his fiancée? How will it end for self-obsessed Sam and his?

If Gary Winick’s experimental DV film, Sam the Man, didn’t tackle some difficult relationship questions so perceptively, its horrible lead and crappy lighting would have sunk it. Though you often can’t always see what’s going on, you do know that it’s an intriguing character study about a successful, talented, and hard to like New York novelist unable to separate fact from fiction.

The film begins with flashbacks by way of black and white stills, with his version of how madly in love he is with Cass (“Stick with me, Cass. I’ll be unbelievable forever”). But moments later, at a restaurant with Cass and their friends, including childhood pal Lorenzo (Saverio Guerra) and fellow writer Max (John Slattery), we see him hitting on a pretty real estate broker (Maria Bello) on his way to the bathroom. Sam might love Cass in his twisted way, but he’s also a notorious skirt-chaser, unable to keep his hands off the beautiful women that come in and out of his life every day — the broker, his editor’s secretary, writing students.

He just can’t help it, he tells Lorenzo, blaming his need to sleep around on his manly needs and easy boredom: “When I first saw Cass, it was ‘Oh, baby!’ Now it’s ‘Oh, baby’ with sneakers and sweatpants.” Sam is so wrapped up in his own melodrama that he can’t see beyond the current moment. He refuses to get a job (he turns down a long-term teaching position because he’s “a writer, not a teacher”), and winds up having to sell the expensive artwork on his walls to pay rent. For Sam, the heartache that comes with his looming eviction, a disappointed fiancée, and fed up friends is apparently worth it to create his art.

Initially, the viewer feels sorry for Cass. As we learn she’s forgiven his infidelities before and that she puts up with his perpetual lack of creative output, however, she becomes less sympathetic. When she finally comes to her senses and leaves Sam (after he admits his infidelities), he moves in with Lorenzo, who tells him he’s an idiot for messing up with Cass. While she accepted Sam’s lies, Lorenzo won’t even start. “You need structure in your life, stability,” Lorenzo says, meaning a job. Sam doesn’t argue with Lorenzo, he does what he’s told.

This is the film’s most intriguing idea, to consider the complicated reactions to Sam’s behavior. We’re mad at Cass as much as Sam because she’s no fool, yet acts like one with him. When she does confront him, instead of forcing Sam to see her point of view, she goes back to head-nodding. We know she knows he’s lying, and we want her to challenge him. Even when she learns Sam has lied about a mugging (he gets pummeled by the husband of a conquest), instead of challenging him, she places his wallet, full of cash, beside him in the bath and leaves.

It’s almost as if Cass wants Sam to make mistakes, as if she gets something out of feeling superior. Or maybe she just realizes her words don’t matter. The question of whether honesty is possible in this relationship is handled well. What does it mean to support a partner in the face of failure? When is placating necessary? Sam pushes every boundary with Cass and she lets him slide until at last he pushes her too far. I spent much of the film, after Sam and Cass’ break-up, wishing it was her story rather than his, so I might learn why she put up with him for so long. I hoped, too, to find this question answered in the commentary track featuring Stevens, who co-wrote the script, and the director, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, they focus on the production — as does the disc’s short featurette — all but ignoring discussion about character motivations.

Cass’ mistakes, at least, are excusable — though it would have helped her case a little had we understood a little better why she’s with him to begin with. She’s too smart to fall for his overly romantic bullshit at the beginning. Sam, on the other hand, is just a rat, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Which works, for the most part (though Stevens and Winick’s query on the commentary track as to whether or not audiences would want Sam and Cass together makes me wonder if they didn’t realize the extent of his awfulness). Sam doesn’t learn anything, but that’s not really the point. Rather, the film is about the all-consuming nature of art, how creative people — albeit slightly mental ones like Sam, who, the commentary reveals, is partly based on Stevens — use their lives as research, often forgetting their responsibilities to others, and the fact that other people don’t share their philosophies.