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I Am Sam

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Queasy-making entertainment. And not only, or even largely, because of the jiggly, jostly, zoomy, freeze-frame-y camerawork under director Jessie Nelson. No: Sean Penn's impression of a mental defective, complete with a new whisk-broom haircut to add to his tonsorial portfolio, no doubt offers many rewards, not the least of which is the license to laugh with impunity at the less fortunate. It is somewhat reminiscent, in its levels of observational detail and skill in mimicry, of Mickey Rooney's memorable performance in the made-for-TV Bill. But what kept the earlier film from the threshold of queasiness was its lower dramatic pressure, its lighter mood. So perhaps, on second thoughts, it might be more reminiscent of John Malkovich's Lenny in Of Mice and Men. The storyline here, as there, is fashioned for nothing other than to torture the character and spectator alike, to wrest pain from the one and pity from the other. The titular Sam is the single dad of a normally bright, abnormally cute little girl who, nearing her eighth birthday, has already caught up with and outdistanced the mental capacity of her father. When a social worker takes an interest in the situation -- takes the daughter away from the father -- it's not because the movie, too, is interested in the situation, but because it is interested, as mentioned, in torture. The whole brutal business is almost a sort of Saturday Night Live gag on a cinematic "heart-tugger" -- They wouldn't let his daughter come out and play with him anymore! -- except that it goes on and on, and no punch line ever arrives. (Small mercy: at least it isn't Robin Williams in the part of the permanent child.) With Michelle Pfeiffer, Dakota Fanning, Dianne Wiest, Laura Dern. (2002) — Duncan Shepherd

Rated PG-13

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