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A feel-good documentary that's made for cynics

Director Tom Shadyac's 'I Am' might be narcissistic, but it ultimately succeeds through scenes with Noam Chomsky, Desmond Tutu, and others, plus some standard filmmaking tricks.

Director Tom Shadyac at the 2010 Port Townsend Film Festival, which screened 'I Am.'

Director Tom Shadyac at the 2010 Port Townsend Film Festival, which screened 'I Am.' Shady Acres Entertainment

Modern life is messy. If governments aren’t toppling and movie stars misbehaving, natural disasters are reminding us how little control we actually have over our own lives.

With all these events the only choice seems to be to ride along with the current. But director Tom Shadyac, with “I Am,” is suggesting small steps we can take in order to improve the planet and remove the prevailing nastiness that grabs the headlines.

Cut to the end: If we love one another, care for another, things will change. A kind task is paid forward; done enough times it will raise the level of compassion in the world. After all, the ocean is nothing but millions of drops of water.

Unfortunately for Shadyac, the knee-jerk reaction to this message is cynicism and disbelief. “All You Need Is Love” is a wonderful sentiment, but hardly realistic. To love your enemy can be a self-destructive strategy, especially when (as pictured in the movie’s wildlife sequences) they are trying to eat you.

Fortunately Shadyac, one-time Big Hollywood Director, knows how to tell a story and has mastered the art of manipulation. And about halfway into this film even we skeptics melt a little.

The treatment: That Big Hollywood director, after making seven successful feature films (four with that beacon of compassionate intellect Jim Carrey), has a debilitating bicycle accident. After an unexpected recuperation he sets out to do something different (the kiss of death for many artists, such as Carrey) and seeks the best minds to answer two simple questions: What is wrong with the world? And what can we do about it?

The first third of  “I Am” is pretty narcissistic. We learn about Shadyac, how he sort of discovered Carrey and accumulated a tremendous amount of wealth. We see several shots from films like “Ace Ventura, Pet Detective” and see interior shots of Shadyac’s posh pad. The movie’s first big observation — that when he took in his new surroundings but didn’t feel any happier — seems churlish and obvious.

Warning bells go off, and when Shadyac promises to ask his questions of meaningful, influential people you shiver a bit. Are we going to get the meaning of life from Carrey, Carrell and Costner?

There’s the first surprise. The “talking heads” here are people like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Desmond Tutu, and Shadyac’s father, along with a slew of others who are hardly household names. And even though a feared appearance by a big Hollywood star never materializes, the narcissism continues. Shadyac asks each (then unidentified) talking head whether they had seen “Ace Ventura,” pulling face when no one had.

That is, until writer Lynne McTaggart discloses that “Ace” is her kids’ favorite flick. Cut to music and hugs. While there is a healthy dose of self-aggrandizement, it still gets pretty sticky, as Shadyac seems to be asking, “Do you know who I am?”

You can take the boy out of Hollywood, but you can’t take Hollywood out of the boy (Shadyac now lives in a Malibu trailer park, a step down from his old digs but still way better than my hood), and it turns out that Shadyac is setting us up. It is about a third into the movie that he pretty much disappears and lets the Heads do the talking.

This is a clever move. By offering some glitz and glamor he is widening his audience. Big thinkers in the audience will be put off by this visual bling, but the message is not for them. “I Am” doesn’t preach to the audience, rather it assumes that most of the people in the theater will resist the message.

Though the movie ends with the admonition to give everyone a hug, the lead-up is a bit more profound. The Heads tell us that while society works as an efficient machine with each of us as a functioning component, humans are ultimately isolated from each other. And while there is the standard notion that man is a savage beast, we are actually pretty tuned into a group consciousness and are naturally inclined to help each other out.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Mar 17, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate

My editor may wish that this shameless proselytizing hadn't been posted by one of his contributing writers, but here goes: A great way to start would be to pick just one person who shares our public spaces but is stuck in the invisible ghetto of mental illness or homelessness and meet that person for coffee and conversation once a week in a public cafe. (You buy the coffee; you don't have to hug: http://freestylevolunteer.wordpress.com.) If each of us picks just one, city life will change. Other ideas out there?

Posted Thu, Mar 17, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate


I was fortunate in being able to attend the preview screening of "I Am," and I agree with most of what's said in this article. Shadyac is really skilled at walking the fine line between schmaltz and polemic. If you listen carefully, at many points in the film the soundtrack contains emotion-laden music--lots of strings--the kind of soundtrack I associate with old Disney animated films about princesses. I cannot help but think that Shadyac made a conscious choice to use that kind of music at a level just a few db above subliminal in order to play with our emotions.

Does that make me feel resentful? Kind of, but only because I realize he's using the same tools that advertising and public relations firms use to get us to support corporate and political agendas. So I suppose it's a case of fighting fire with fire, and since I believe the main message of "I Am" is spot-on and needs broad dissemination and promotion, I'm willing to accept that the tools of the trade need to be exploited.

Am I familiar with cynicism? Man oh man, I was born and raised in NYC, and for several years in this area I lived under the fantasy that I was meant to be a journalist. I did it just long enough to see what goes on on a daily basis in Olympia, and to figure out that I didn't have the skills to cover that nonsense on a daily basis. But for many years I retained the shock and awe and cynicism that comes with knowing what's going on backstage, and I found out why a lot of the old-timers in the news biz drank heavily.

As I approach the end of my sixth decade, I'm finally getting around to rejecting that cynicism for the simple and practical reason that it doesn't serve any purpose. After many decades of believing that all of my nay-saying was a mark of sophistication, I now realize that what it mostly does is stop me from seeing the good in people, and there's plenty of it.

Disclosure: I've been stoking an interest in Buddhism for 15 years, and I've spent a lot of time reading their take on things and mulling it over. I am captivated by the idea that all of us--yes, even Dick Cheney--has the essential goodness known as Buddha nature at our core, but it gets obscured when we let human weaknesses get through to us with insufficient filtering. So I was ripe for the "I Am" message. I'm very curious to know what kind of reception the film gets in mid-town Manhattan.

Lindy

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