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.

Crosscut archive image.

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

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.

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.

Or maybe it is all a big joke. One scene has Shadyac sitting in front of a petri dish full of yogurt with electrodes and a gauge that jumps into the red every time he mentions his lawyer or his agent. The yogurt is picking up this stress vibe, he says. Yeah, right, I say.

Other times the cheap filmmaking tricks work. He tells us that when we see someone else in pain we feel that pain ourselves. Just as he says this there appears a shot of a razor blade slicing through someone’s tongue. Sure enough, you feel it in your chest.

Manipulation? Sure thing. You may not believe that humans are like flocking birds that sense direction and act on group impulses, but it’s pretty clear that this whole isolation thing has gotten out of hand.

The movie-making process is now democratized, and anyone with a handheld camera and an idea can make a documentary. And since “I Am” has a pretty obvious premise, it wasn’t necessary for Shadyac to film it. Chances are he wasn’t the first to do so; with naive, hopeful kids everywhere making their own pocket documentaries, chances are that at least one of them has found this particular combination.

But as a Big Hollywood Director, Shadyac can presumably get the movie seen and get people talking about its ideas. Those of us at home may never get an emotional reaction out of a plate of yogurt, but the idea that we all sense events seconds before they happen is worth a discussion.

Shadyac is attempting to move the dialogue along, appearing at screenings and making himself available for clarification. (There is a website, www.iamthedoc.com, but be aware that showtimes and locations aren’t up to date). Unfortunately, the venues are still small towns and art houses where he is preaching to the converted. Add to this the fact that a search for the movie now pops up references to the new sci-fi thriller “I Am Number Four,” which doesn't exactly follow the same theme. And we wonder whether Shadyac has finished his listening tour, as there seems to be no link on the website to send him a message or offer feedback.

All this will work better once the DVD is released and it can be shown in schools, retirement homes, and community centers. It also would be cool to show it in board rooms and government offices, but you’d have to make people check their smart phones at the door.

Get people talking. Get people hugging. Not a bad idea for a world where it takes a massive disaster to flush Charlie Sheen out of the news cycle.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors