It's "Rain Man" meets "Kramer vs. Kramer," whether you asked for it or not. Into the Dustin Hoffman roles (both of them) steps Sean Penn, giving an uncharacteristically humiliating performance as one Sam Dawson, a mentally challenged single dad denied custody of his adorable, "normal" moppet (Dakota Fanning). The exaggerated set of circumstances that separates these two is just a tad less believable than Penn's method retardation -- a cycle of muttered asides and Herman Munster guffaws that at best constitutes a bad Hoffman impression, at worst an unconscious echo of Adam Sandler's disability riffs in "Bulletproof." ("Didney-land!")
To win back his daughter, Sam swings pro bono services from a brittle attorney (Michelle Pfeiffer) who has domestic issues of her own to iron out. Lest we underestimate her frustration, hack director/producer/co-writer Jessie Nelson ("Corrina, Corrina") has Pfeiffer inflame the tension of a crucial scene by kicking over a table. Whatever happened to a nice close-up of a pencil being snapped in two?
Peripheral supporting players Mary Steenburgen, Dianne Wiest and Laura Dern flit in and out of the movie like wraiths. The one watchable participant is 7-year-old Fanning, whose free-flowing intelligence and charm actually contradict the story's thesis. The more we see her, the more we feel that she shouldn't be in the custody of Sam -- or anyone else involved in the making of this picture.
Spooky coincidence: After "Vanilla Sky," this is the second crummy film this winter in which a character identifies his or her favorite Beatle as George. "I Am Sam"'s moptop obsession doesn't end there. Sam's daughter is named Lucy, and Pfeiffer's attorney is Rita Harrison, as in "meter maid" and ...Ã?well, you know. Characters repeatedly summon reserves of personal strength by reciting comforting bits of Beatle lore -- whereupon the soundtrack swells with bad Lennon/McCartney covers by the likes of Ben Folds and Sarah McLachlan. The manipulation is so tasteless that you wonder why Nelson didn't go all the way and title the movie A 'Tard Day's Night.