After enduring a prolonged battle with post-concussion syndrome following a bike accident, filmmaker Tom Shadyac – the helmer behind such slapstick blockbusters as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Nutty Professor,” and “Bruce Almighty” – decided to steer his life and priorities in a new direction. He moved out of his mansion and into a Malibu trailer park, gave up his car in favor of his bike and, in general, renounced his Hollywood lifestyle in a quest to get at the essence of what brings inner peace. The result of this soul-searching is his personal documentary, “I Am,” a well-meaning it of metaphysical inquiry that hits all the right sentiments but manages precious little substance.
What’s wrong with our world and what can we do about it? These are the two questions that inform Shadyac’s search. The questions are, at once, too vast and too simplistic. And if they are new to you then “I Am” may be a mind-expanding odyssey, but, more than likely, you’ve contemplated these questions every day since you were 13. Hence, “I Am’s” philosophical depth may feel shallow, a lukewarm wade through familiar waters.
Shadyac’s line of questioning is good-hearted, but it limits his all-star roster of talking heads, including spiritual and intellectual luminaries like Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, to platitudes about our enslavement to materialism and, ultimately, our essential, redemptive goodness. Where Shadyac does come up with fresh insights is when he interviews researchers and environmentalists in debunking the popular notion that Nature is essentially cutthroat and competitive. Citing the fact that, while Darwin used the phrase “survival of the fittest” only twice in his “Descent of Man,” he used the word “love” 95 times, Shadyac brings Darwin out from under the gloomy clouds of natural selection and into the sunnier skies of New Age concepts involving our mystical interconnectedness and biological gift for empathy.
To be sure, Shadyac’s examination of our core nature is really a gloss. He cites one example of herd behavior demonstrating democracy over hegemony, but it’s one example in our very complex natural system. More interesting are discussions of Mirror Neurons and the Vagus Nerve, both evidence of hardwiring that gear us towards empathy. At times, his choices border on the flat-out silly as exemplified by an experiment in which he “interacts” with a Petri dish of yogurt. The yogurt’s hooked up to a monitor that shows how it’s biochemically responding to Shadyac’s positive and negative energy. That, along with quotes from Rumi and other literary sages, is heart-warming but not exactly compelling science. Still, the message that, at our core, we are compassionate, empathetic beings is welcome in a society driven predominantly by greed.
That “I Am” is also a slickly produced package containing montage sequences rife with maudlin visual cues (the movie is loaded with enough archival images of Nature beauty shots and social history mishmash to fill a Time-Life volume) shouldn’t come as a surprise; the documentary was made, after all, by a mega-successful purveyor of broad comedies. In that sense, “I Am,” for all its limitations, is an honest, sincere reflection of Shadyac’s personality, conscience and curiosity. And in spite of the generic, broadly stated questions at the documentary’s outset, the answer that “I Am” comes up with is profoundly simple, found in the small kindnesses that keeps us sustained and connected.
Directed by: Tom Shadyac
Cast: Marc Ian Barasch, Coleman Barks, Noam Chomsky, John Francis, Lynne McTaggart, Tom Shadyac, Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn