Despite Sean Penn's moving performance, the tear-jerky sentimentality in "I Am Sam" leaves you cringing. 

This 'Sam' Is Ham

"I Am Sam" is one of those feel-good message movies audiences react strongly to, with either vehement hate or love. There's no in between. Although I found a great deal to appreciate, most particularly the acting of Sean Penn and newcomer Dakota Fanning, director Jessie Nelson goes overboard with the sentimentality. Get out your hankies, for sure. Just don't be surprised that what you're shedding are crocodile tears.

"I Am Sam" unspools like a highly functioning made-for-TV movie of the week, offering us broadly defined characters, hocum and hyperbole instead of thoughtful, provocative entertainment.

A compelling question lies at the heart of this drama: Does a mentally retarded father have the right to raise a child who at age 7 already surpasses him intellectually? Sadly, Nelson and co-scriptor Kristine Johnson embrace the easy answer, the feel-good ending whose only justification seems to be that it feels good. On the rare occasion when the script calls for a social worker or lawyer to ask a challenging question, the actors do so with cartoonlike sneers, dripping with melodramatic villainy. The entire movie struggles under the burden of exaggeration and overemphasis on the obvious.

Equally obvious is "I Am Sam's" target audience — sophisticated, intelligent moviegoers. Yet by crafting the most elementary movie possible from an incredible mix of emotions, human demands and social responsibilities, Nelson and Johnson simultaneously intrigue and repel their intended viewers. Apparently they hoped the presence of Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer (as Sam's high-powered lawyer) would compensate for a half-baked script and surface-only character development.

Suspension of belief isn't just a suggestion when watching "I Am Sam" — it's mandatory.

In a quickly paced opening, Sam Dawson (Penn), a sweetly sincere retarded man, attends the birth of his daughter shortly after a day of gainful employment bussing tables at a Los Angeles Starbucks. The mother, a homeless woman who connected with Sam strictly for a place to sleep, yet carried the pregnancy to full term, deserts father and child after leaving the hospital.

This is followed by a brief montage in which we see little Lucy (Fanning) grow to the wise, old age of 7, when she begins to understand that Sam is different from other daddies. Through a clearly contrived — and highly improbable — series of circumstances and coincidences, Sam gets arrested. The charges are false, but that means nothing to the social workers at Child Protection Services. Lucy is instantly snatched away (by Loretta Devine), which means Sam, with the help of his best friends, all of whom have mental handicaps, must hire a lawyer.

Their choice, literally a stab in the phone book's Yellow Pages, is Pfeiffer's Rita Harrison. But guess what? She's an obsessed workaholic family-law specialist who takes pride in never having lost a case, while her own family life is falling apart. So out of touch is she with her emotions, her co-workers have to shame her into taking Sam's case pro bono. From here on, Nelson and Johnson mire down their drama in a vast morass of heavy-handed acting, overblown plot contrivances and simplistic answers to an array of complex questions.

What keeps you intrigued is Penn. He gives a heartfelt, truthful performance that never resorts to gimmicks or actorly mannerisms. He quickly gets us to forget every other role he's mastered, disappearing deeply into Sam. Penn's manner of speaking or walking, even the way he holds his hands, work brilliantly to convey the struggle going on in his character's head. On a par with Penn's portrayal is that of Fanning, a savvy little cherub who delivers her lines without once slipping into the Hollywood kiddie tradition of precious precociousness. Together, Penn and Fanning do the near impossible: make us forget the simpering, tear-jerker screenplay and then, make us care deeply for Sam and

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