Documentary suggests sky not falling after all
By Kirk Honeycutt
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - That weary guy reaching the top of a mountain peak to consult with a wise man about the meaning of life has long been a staple cartoon in The New Yorker and Playboy.
"I Am," a surprising philosophical inquiry-cum-documentary from, of all people, Tom Shadyac, is a 21st century equivalent of that cartoon, though despite his funnyman credentials, Shadyac intends no joke.
In the movie, the filmmaker closely associated with the careers of Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy and Steve Carell in such respective films as "Ace Ventura," "The Nutty Professor" remake and "Bruce Almighty" consults with top scientists, historians, spiritual leaders and philosophers in a quest for enlightenment that proves ... well, all right, let's use the word, most enlightening.
The 78-minute film starts off as a curio by a Hollywood insider but winds up making an awful lot of sense -- with a few caveats. That combination might mean an energetic box office for "I Am" in specialty venues and certainly a wonderful afterlife in television and home entertainment. It opens Friday.
Everything stems from a very bad day of bicycling. In 2007, Shadyac, basking in the glory of a substantial career as a canny purveyor of film comedies, took a terrible spill from his bike. The initial injuries were bad enough, but he developed something called post concussion syndrome, which basically means the original concussion doesn't go away. The horrible pain, mood swings and sensitivity to movement and light can lead to suicide.
Gradually, relief did come, but this brush with death caused him to re-evaluate everything in his life and make this doc. With a crew of four people, Shadyac approaches any number of sagacious individuals, the most famous of whom are probably Bishop Desmond Tutu, Dr. Noam Chomsky and Dr. Howard Zinn. He asks two questions: What's wrong with our world? And what can we do about it?
The initial "wisdom" Shadyac receives falls into the category of cliches. Money, he learns, can't buy happiness. So he sells his 17,000-square-foot mansion and scales down to a mobile-home community -- albeit in Malibu. Lesson No. 2: It's the economy, stupid. Yes, our society and economy dictates that one's success must come at someone else's expense. One needs to see a conspicuous difference between his wealth and another's lack thereof. Indigenous cultures, you are told, take this as a sign of mental illness.
After this not-so-enlightening commentary, however, things get more interesting. As the talking heads sort through animal behavior, recent studies of human DNA and of the heart and brain, there is growing evidence that humans are more hard-wired for cooperation and compassion than might be imagined. Continued...