I Am Sam and The Shipping News (review)

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The Stories of Men

If you’re like me, then you probably just can’t stand the crap that passes for “entertainment for men.” You know, the kind of sappy, melodramatic junk that Lifetime for Men airs: movies about soccer dads in jeopardy, usually called things like Oh Dear God No Not My Baby!, horrible, trite stories about dads who triumph over a cold, harsh, unsympathetic world, and become better people and — more importantly — better dads in the process.

Lord, I hate this stuff. Fortunately, it’s typically confined to those easily avoided men’s ghettos like Lifetime and the CBS Sunday Night Movie, but once in a while, They try to trick us: They cast Big Name Actors in roles that should be played by Ray Romano in his Dramatic Debut and They release these films in late December and build to a wider release in January. So a Movie of the Week becomes Oscar-bait, one that Critics Are Calling [insert hyperbole here].
Kramer vs. Rain Man
Sam Dawson obsessively rearranges the sugar packets at the California Starbucks where he works. His job description also includes telling every customer that her or she has made a “wonderful choice!” even if he or she is drinking a Grande anything with soy in it. See, Sam is Hollywood Retarded: a charming, happy, well-adjusted 40-year-old 7-year-old, with only a little inappropriate spontaneous hugging happening now and then. Life is a party for Sam, what with Wednesday being IHOP Night and Thursday Video Night and all. Everything’s an adventure for Sam: So what if a dozen takes are needed before that answering-machine message works? It’s fun!

But tonight, on a Very Special Episode of I Am Sam, Sam faces his greatest challenge ever, as he fights to retain custody of his daughter, 7-year-old Lucy.

Yes, his daughter. Probably best not to go into how he ends up with a child. But that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that Sam and Lucy will teach us all the true meaning of love. Because all you need is love (Ewan McGregor sang this to us last year in a kaleidoscopic underworld pop musical, and was far more convincing). True parenthood is not enduring 2am diaper changes and 4am feedings and “NO!” meaning everything including “yes,” not comforting little heads that have banged into the corners of coffee tables, not attending PTA meetings and buying shoes (unless trips to the shoe store result in Balloons For Everyone!), not any of those things that drive parents of normal intelligence to distraction or insanity. I am tempted to wonder: Where are all the social workers in this town? But bad me. We’re not supposed to consider how a man with the mental ability of a second-grader and no apparent outside emotional support except for an agoraphobic neighbor manages to bring a child through helpless infancy and into robust childhood. We’re just supposed to be thoroughly charmed by how much he adores her, how he gets as much fun out of Green Eggs and Ham as she does. We’re just supposed to exchange heartwarmed glances, like those Hare Krishna guys in Airplane!

How much more cute could they be? Sean Penn (Up at the Villa, The Thin Red Line) as Sam does his best Raymond Babbitt imitation — definitely, definitely Raymond Babbitt, definitely Raymond Babbitt — with a bit of Charley Gordon thrown in for good measure. All little Dakota Fanning as Lucy needs to do is blink her enormous blue eyes to elicit awwwws from the most hard-hearted of moviegoers. What’s not to love?

But then — horrors! — cold, hard, uncaring circumstance puts Sam and Lucy at the mercy of the cold, hard, uncaring Man, as someone finally gets a clue and wonders how healthy a situation Lucy is in, and what will happen when Lucy turns 8 and surpasses her father — her sole parental guidance — in mental ability. She’s already outwitting him, fer pete’s sake — imagine how dangerous she’ll be when she’s 15. Wait: I forgot. All you need is love. I guess I need to be reminded of this. Like that bitch lawyer that Sam “hires” when she is shamed by her colleagues into accepting his case pro bono: Rita Harrison wears fancy suits and drives a fancy car and is beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer (What Lies Beneath, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), but she’s got a lousy relationship with her son, so how happy can she be? The answer, of course, is “Not happy at all.” But she’ll learn. Sam will show her what being a parent is all about, which, as far as I Am Sam seems to think it is, is swinging your kid around in slow motion with a goofy grin on your face, even if your kid is starting to have to read the stories to you at night because her vocabulary is bigger than yours.

So next time you’re feeling inadequate as a parent, find a way to lower your IQ by 50 points and find yourself the most menial, low-paying job possible. You’ll be on your way to happiness in no time.

Extry, extry, read all about it
I Am Sam doesn’t even pretend to hide its MOWness. The Shipping News is a little slyer. It’s Based on the Acclaimed Novel By someone most moviegoers have never heard of, which is good for everyone involved: The author and the publisher get to put out a new edition of the book with Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore on the cover to sell to people who’ll buy it and never read it; and the movie’s producers get to fool multiplexers into thinking they’re consuming something nutritious and good for them. Sure, the end result is as sappy and melodramatic as all get out, but it’s got a lit’ry veneer of respectability.

Quoyle, who’s sort of a dying-industrial-small-town loser, lets himself get knocked up by a woman named, no kidding, Petal Bear, who is clearly Trouble — what with the caked-on makeup and the fishnet stockings and all — but it’s not his brain that’s doing the thinking. Petal ends up running off and dumping the kid on him, knowing this is the best thing for his character arc, just in time for another woman who’s Trouble in a different way — his aunt, whose name is, no kidding, Agnis Hamm — to show up and start bossing Quoyle around. Even though Quoyle is played by Kevin Spacey ( K-Pax, Pay It Forward) — who used to be able to do no wrong and at least doesn’t eat fruit with the peel still on here — and Spacey furrows his brow a lot when he isn’t making confused-hurt puppy-dog eyes at everyone, he’s really hard to feel any sympathy for when you just want to smack some sense into him. Which is probably the point — he has to learn to grow up and be a man and so on — but it doesn’t make spending time with him any less frustrating.

[Private to Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Bandits), who plays Petal and does her can- do- no- wrong kick-ass job: If you’re not careful, you’ll end up like Spacey, who also used to kick ass (metaphorically speaking). Run from Hollywood now, sweetie, before they start dangling Oscar-bait roles in front of your face and you get too weak with desire to refuse. Remember Frodo and the Ring.]

Aunt Agnis, who is Judi Dench (Chocolat, Tea with Mussolini) playing Judi Dench, drags Quoyle, perhaps against his will, to Newfoundland, which is a godawful cold place at the ends of the Earth where they eat seal-flipper pie. This is where his “people” are “from,” Agnis harrumphs, which can’t really be the case because he does not appear to be Native American, but what she really means is “This is the first stop your European ancestors made in the New World, and it’s high time you found out why they left it for better climes.” Not only is there snow still on the ground in May, but the place is full of “omens, restless spirits, magic,” that wacky Welsh guy from Notting Hill, and the Quoyle House, at the actual end of nowhere, a ramshackle thing sitting on the edge of a rocky cliff, with guy wires securing it to the ground, so it doesn’t blow off into the ocean below.

So instantly, you get it: They’re gonna rebuild the house, rebuild their lives, rebuild their souls (for Aunt Agnis is hurting, too, in some dark, secret way, and of course the kid is a mess, being abandoned by her mother and all). Which isn’t precisely what happens, but pretty much. The house is very Symbolic. Which is one of those lit’ry things that impresses people.

Along the way to everyone’s healing and the completion of their character arcs are curses, people who are “sensitive,” and people who “know things,” like Quoyle’s daughter, whose name is, no kidding, Bunny (played by triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn, and Lauren Gainer), who says things like “The house is sad.” This is another lit’ry thing known as “magic realism,” which is just another way of saying “fantasy for people who can’t handle the full-blown thing.” There is also an embarrassing surfeit of quirky-for-quirk’s-sake names, like Beaufield Nutbeem, Silver and Bayonet Melville, Jack Buggit, and Wavey, who is Julianne Moore (Evolution, Hannibal) playing Julianne Moore. As the only other woman in town beside Agnis, it falls to her to fall in love with Quoyle and contribute to saving his soul. Kinda like how Princess Leia, as the only woman in the galaxy, had to fall in love with Han Solo. Oh, and Wavey is a psychological mess, too.

So, everyone’s wounded, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end. Kudos once again to Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules), for letting us feel like we’ve seen an Important Film without putting us through anything uncomfortable.

I Am Sam
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for language
official site | IMDB

The Shipping News
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated R for some language, sexuality and disturbing images

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