Monday, March 13, 2017

Bad made good

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2001)

When I write about films, I suppose I tend to deal in absolute concepts of good or bad. I never feel very comfortable giving an opinion on whether something is “a good film of its kind,” although that’s basically the approach that, say, a reviewer for a daily paper has to take. The Outreach Connection allows me a little island of independence, and I’ve been lucky enough to occupy it on my own terms. I hope that after this long it’s an approach of interest to enough people to be worthwhile, but it wouldn’t cut it at the Toronto Star (fortunately, I have an actual paying job which doesn’t involve movies at all, unless you include watching the odd training video).

Crowe versus Penn

A comparison of two current films presents an interesting litmus test – A Beautiful Mind and I Am Sam. The first of these now seems to be the favourite to win the best picture Oscar. As I’ll write further next week, I like it well enough, although it seems to me far from the year’s best (I might place it around, say, no. 45). I Am Sam has basically received bad reviews – or rather, it’s received good reviews only from reviewers that nobody respects. I can’t see much at all to choose between the two. And I think that’s because I just don’t “get” that particular attribute that takes two films of broadly similar tone and content and thematic intent and makes one generally discernible as “sensible and intelligent” while the other is “manipulative and over-sentimental.”

That’s my first problem. My second problem, which is probably more my own idiosyncrasy, is that although I don’t have a basis for calling I Am Sam “better” than A Beautiful Mind, I definitely enjoyed it more. In part, it’s just because of the kind of quirks people argue pointlessly about over a few drinks – I find Sean Penn much more fascinating than Russell Crowe, that kind of thing. The second thing, which you can either buy into as a concept or don’t at all, is that it’s more interesting to me to think about I Am Sam than A Beautiful Mind, precisely because of its flaws. It’s not as deft, not as artful, not as sure of its tone; it doesn’t have things as well in place. But to me that’s a recipe for more provocative cinema.

There’s nothing profound about that – it comes from the same place as the old chestnut that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. I’ve tried to argue this general viewpoint numerous times with people, but seldom get anywhere with it. Most people can accept that you’d like a movie despite its weaknesses, but not because of them. Or else they reserve such compromised affection for stuff like American Pie 2 and Steven Seagal, allowing a genetic affinity for the genre to override their own tastes. I do that sometimes too, but the column on such guilty pleasures will have to wait for another day.

I Am Sam

I should probably get specific now about I Am Sam. Basically, the film works much better if you view it as an absurdist comedy. I don’t think that’s the filmmakers’ intention though. Penn plays a man with the mental age of a 7-year-old, who has a one-night stand leading to the birth of a daughter. When the mother bails out, Penn brings her up by himself, with the help of an agoraphobic neighbour and his group of similarly learning-challenged friends. When the girl herself turns seven, she comes to the attention of social services, which quickly takes her away from her father into care. To fight his case, Penn lucks into obtaining the services of a high-powered, ultra-neurotic lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) with family problems of her own.

The thesis of all this is, more or less, that love is all you need (Sam is an obsessive Beatles fan who relates to much around him by applying Beatles lyrics or bits of folklore). As critics galore have pointed out, this is obvious nonsense, because Sam is objectively incapable of doing almost anything except providing a genuine but affectless love. It’s such nonsense that it’s better to treat the whole thing as a parody of liberal, heart-on-their-sleeve message movies. And that works, particularly since Pfeiffer does seem to be playing much of her part for laughs.

The movie has a light, caught-on-the-fly kind of shooting style, which rather contrasts with the somewhat deliberate writing style and the generally awful, gooey Beatles covers that drench the soundtrack. Whereas Penn is of course putting on a performance and looks like it, his friends appear to be played by men who are really learning-challenged – if they’re not, they’re certainly portraying that state more subtly and authentically than Penn does. Penn himself is the single most debatable thing in the film. He received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actor, so it must look pretty good to a lot of his peers.

Nightmare performance

But some find the performance unwatchable. This is Charles Taylor in Salon: “I don’t know the last time I’ve seen so disgraceful a display from a talented actor…Penn delves into mannerisms and vocal distortions with an appalling eagerness. He makes the classic mistake of playing the handicap instead of the person. An actor affecting this demeanor to make fun of a retarded man would be pilloried. Penn’s portrayal strikes me as equally insensitive. It’s the nightmare performance of 2001.”

I thought the performance was largely terrific, but I agree that it generally fails in creating a rounded character. But to me that helps neutralize the film’s sentimentality and turns it into something more abstract and stylized. At one point, Sam makes a surprisingly eloquent courtroom speech that’s soon revealed to be lifted from Kramer vs. Kramer, a movie he’s just seen. The odd thing is that the ending of I Am Sam relies on a sudden change of heart that also recalls Kramer. It seems that this must be connected in some way, as some kind of commentary on life vs. art, but it’s hard to see what sense that would make for such a film. But again, it works if you see it as a deliberate absurdity, as a narrative capitulation acknowledging how much Sam’s quest depends on impractical idealism.

The film’s title is the simplest assertion of an identity that if not asserted might be overlooked. And that sums up how the film works for me – there’s Sam with his quest, and the film seems to support it emotionally while demonstrating (inadvertently or not) its lack of merit. He’s embodied by an actor who (inadvertently or not) suggests how little “identity” the character has. And he moves through an incoherent world, following unanalyzable rules. Perhaps these are the characteristics of a bad film, but also of a rather fascinating one. And here’s one last confession: it may be the most transparently manipulative of weepies, but I Am Sam almost made me cry.

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