Tom Shadyac spent the first part of his Hollywood career directing big, dumb comedies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, The Nutty Professor, and Bruce Almighty. His new movie, the documentary I Am, is a complete turnaround, an intimate, small-scale meditation on the human spirit, what's wrong with the world, and how we can fix it. But despite the parade of smart people Shadyac interviews in the movie—Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn—it's still pretty dumb.
In 2007, Shadyac broke his wrist and suffered a head injury in a bicycle accident. What's worse, the symptoms of his concussion—headaches and sensitivity to light—lasted for months after the crash, a condition known as post-concussion syndrome. Doctors didn't know when, or if, Shadyac would ever fully recover. In an early scene in I Am, Shadyac says his post-concussion torment drained his will to live, leaving him a semi-invalid recluse. Then, suddenly, his symptoms receded. It was a turning point for Shadyac, whose successful Hollywood life until then had included red carpet premieres, luxury vacations, and a 17,000-square-foot house in Beverly Hills. His debilitating pain made him wonder if maybe he was doing it all wrong. Shadyac started asking himself questions about the state of the world, chief among them, "What's wrong with the world?" and "What can we do about it?" He sold his house and art collection and moved into a trailer. He started riding his bike everywhere.
For I Am, Shadyac poses his big questions to an all-star lineup of academics, religious leaders, poets, and scientists. Shadyac turns out to be a likable guide along the cutting edge of psychology, physics, biology, and the philosophy of science. His newfound enthusiasm for the contemplative life and self-deprecating humor create a student/teacher dynamic that is helpful for the viewer—you don't feel dumb for not knowing any of this already. But Shadyac's workmanlike skills as a filmmaker eventually wear down his goodwill. Stock footage of Third World poverty, poetic sunsets, monkeys, and the Civil Rights movement make the last third of I Am feel like a film for an elementary school social studies class.
The final half hour or so presents other problems for the 80-minute movie. Some of the answers to Shadyac's questions are interesting (like the idea that everything in the universe is connected by strands of sub-molecular matter), or at least bizarre enough to be entertaining (the notion, played out in a not-so-scientific demonstration with a Petri dish of yogurt, that Shadyac's emotional state affects living things around him). But too many of the observations from Shadyac's talking heads are presented as paradigm-shifting breakthroughs, even when they're conventional wisdom by now—like, humans are hard-wired for cooperation, or money doesn't necessarily make people happy. And Shadyac's ultimate conclusion—we're all connected, we've got too much stuff, and one small act of kindness can change the world—comes dangerously close to sappy, dunderheaded New Age nonsense.
Shadyac's wide-eyed hope is not a bad idea, just an incomplete one. It ignores the institutional and systematic roots of poverty and injustice, and equates personal good deeds with political action. Giving a dollar to a panhandler doesn't do much to address homelessness; not being a racist or a homophobe won't do much to end discrimination against minorities. The communal response from survivors and aid workers to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center might have demonstrated one side of human nature, but the attacks themselves showed an equal, if altogether darker side. A brief interview with Shadyac's father is the only counterpoint to the movie's general rosy optimism; when a man who spent his entire career working for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital calls his son's wish that maybe one day we'll all get along "a utopian dream," it's got to count for something.
Still, it's hard to dismiss Shadyac entirely. As mid-life conversions go, his is better than most—sustainability and compassion beat religious fundamentalism. It seems clear that he's happier, and maybe even a better person for it. It's just too bad he's not a better movie director.