Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tom Shadyac, Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Lynne McTaggart, Coleman Barks, Thom Hartmann, Marc Ian Barasch, Coleman Barks, John Francis
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Tom Shadyac
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing image
Running Time: 76
Date: 10/01/2010

I Am (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wrong and Right

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The past several years have been dominated by "outrage" docs. These movies preach to us about how terrible war is, or how terrible the Holocaust was, or else they warn us about how terrible the current economic, political and environmental situations are. Now comes the slight and highly enjoyable documentary, I Am (which has the misfortune to open the same day as I Am Number Four). It takes on many of the same issues, with less depth, but with a great deal more hope.

It comes from director Tom Shadyac, who does not have the most sparkling movie resume in Hollywood. His debut feature was Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), which made tons of money for everyone involved. He also made the notorious Patch Adams (1998), as well as the Kevin Costner thriller Dragonfly (2002), which people seem to like even less than Patch Adams. I personally hated Evan Almighty (2007) -- the sequel to Shadyac's Bruce Almighty (2003) -- with a vengeance usually reserved for parking tickets and jury duty. Although I do admit to liking Liar Liar (1997), a terrific comedy that, for once, made the most of its high concept.

Anyway, it turns out that Shadyac suffered a bicycle accident recently that gave him a concussion. The concussion refused to go away, and Shadyac was tormented by constant pain and a constant ringing in his ears. All his money could not help. Believing he had reached the end, he began to contemplate life, and magically the affliction began to go away by itself. And so he embarked upon this documentary, which purports to ask two key questions: "What's wrong with the world?" and "What can we do about it?"

To get some answers, Shadyac interviews some of today's greatest thinkers, including Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Lynne McTaggart, Coleman Barks, and Thom Hartmann, as well as others. It's a lefty bunch to be sure, and I'm sure right-wingers will find everything in I Am a bit too touchy-feely and "Kumbaya." But, unlike most of the outrage docs, this one also appears to be on the right track.

It begins by identifying what many other outrage docs have identified. The environment is in trouble. The economy is in trouble. Consumerism is bad. Corporations are bad, etc. But what most of these interviewees are really studying is human nature. It is generally assumed that we are like animals and that only the strongest will survive. Competition and violence is in our nature. Darwin said so, didn't he? Well, apparently that one little quote from Darwin kind of misses the point of all his work. Also, it appears that we humans have been hard-wired not for competition and violence, but for cooperation. That's why we're rewarded with warm fuzzies when we're helping or spending time with people and why our brains malfunction when we get angry and violent.

More than that, the entire planet has been wired for cooperation. There's an experiment in the movie in which Shadyac's brain waves appear to affect the electrical pulses in a dish of yogurt. No fooling. And there's another story about random number generators that is also kind of weird. Our general moods affect absolutely everything.

So what can we do about it? We can simply start helping others, or even being nice to others. It's the Pay It Forward principal, I guess, but more realistic. Even the tiniest thing will do, like a smile or a wave. The movie points out how our country went, in just a few decades, from a dismal state of "no coloreds aloud" in restaurants to having an African-American president. No single person or event was responsible for this; it was a general, collective mood. Enough people joined in to make it happen. And that's it.

It has been shown that Shadyac is not the world's most skilled filmmaker, and he turns in a fairly rough film here; it's jokey and sentimental, and heavily reliant on mood music, and it's short and somewhat shallow. Nevertheless, it makes a clean, appealing argument. I have recommended many outrage docs, but I know that people won't really enjoy them. Even if they do watch them, it will be out of a sense of duty. I can safely say that people will enjoy I Am. I know that half of you are laughing at me now, but half of you won't be, and that will be the half that counts.

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