I Am is so soft and gooey that if you poked it, caramel filling might spill out.
A personal documentary from comedy director Tom Shadyac, who previously helmed the likes of Liar, Liar and Evan Almighty, the movie is also, appropriately, quite sweet. Shadyac is remarkably earnest in his description of the identity crisis he underwent after a bike accident left him with post-concussion syndrome, yet the film – and hence his experience – remains awkwardly trite. I firmly believe Shadyac has had a meaningful epiphany. I’m not sure it’s that meaningful for the rest of us.
After Shadyac’s health crisis causes him to reevaluate his priorities, he sells his mansion, hires a bare-bones film crew and sets out to answer two questions: “What’s wrong with our world? What can we do about?” (The fact that the movie attempts to answer them in 76 minutes gives you an idea of its depth and seriousness.) Shadyac proceeds to interview a series of prominent thinkers – Noam Chomsky, Desmond Tutu – yet each takes the film in a new, random direction. Desperate for cohesion, Shadyac anchors the segments with relentless and tangentially related B-roll footage. (When one subject casually mentions the word dragon, we get a shot of an elaborate dragon costume at a Chinese street festival.)
And so I Am mostly consists of vague, intermittently intriguing discussions about the evils of consumerism and individualism, as well as humanity’s crucial relationship to the environment. Shadyac takes pains to root some of this in real science, but he undermines his own credibility during a segment in which he tries to demonstrate our connection to all living things by communicating with a Petri dish of yogurt.
In this and other scenes, another problem emerges: Shadyac isn’t that funny. You could argue that neither is Evan Almighty, yet I would think that a director who has collaborated with the likes of Jim Carrey and Steve Carell would have a funny bone or two. Even his slight attempts at self deprecation in the yogurt scene fall flat, perhaps because Shadyac is too eager to believe in the “experiment.” They say humor is born of pain; maybe enlightened folks just can’t make us laugh.
Questioning someone’s personal convictions can be unseemly, especially when those convictions are this harmless. It’s great that Tom Shadyac has moved into a mobile home and now rides his bike to work (the most tangible examples of his conversion the movie offers). I simply wouldn’t equate that with the answer to all that’s wrong with the universe. I Am does, and the project seems all the sillier for it.