I had the rare opportunity last night of seeing back-to-back films that are up for Oscar contention. One of them succeeds brilliantly. The other is more problematic.
First the good news. Dame Judi Dench is absolutely remarkable as the title character in Iris Before her starring role in Mrs. Brown a couple of years ago, Americans did not know much about Judi Dench. She was a fine British stage actress but hadn't crossed over here much either on film or in the theatre.
Of course, Mrs. Brown and then Shakespeare in Love changed all that. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the latter, even though she was on screen for about 8 minutes. Nevertheless, her overnight career, at age 65, was cemented.
Last year, she picked up more appreciation in Chocolat.
Now she's in two new Miramax films, Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch and the upcoming Shipping News. As the famed British novelist Iris Murdoch, Dame Judi has the unenviable task of trying to communicate the writer's last year as she coped with Alzheimer's Disease. Already you're thinking, who wants to see that?
But with the help of director Richard Eyre and castmates Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Bonneville, Dench is simply amazing. She conveys all of the sadness of Iris Murdoch's life sentence while investing her with a tremendous amount of vitality. It's an invigorating, inspired performance, so far above the average "disease of the week" grandstanding that it should be shown probably as a lesson for future actresses.
What you like most about Dench's Murdoch is that she doesn't make her suddenly wise. There is no long, drawn out goodbye for Iris Murdoch. Thanks to a clever script, Murdoch's illness takes her down into the rabbit hole of dementia quickly. What Dench does is make the audience accept the inevitable without feeling pity for Murdoch. Instead you feel admiration.
Dame Judi is helped enormously by the three supporting performances, most especially Kate Winslet's as young Iris. Winslet has never been better, and there's no doubt of her getting a nomination as well. Jim Broadbent — the character actor who's stacked up a bunch of great turns recently in Moulin Rouge, Little Voice, Bridget Jones's Diary and Topsy-Turvy — is marvelous as Dench's seemingly doddering but devoted companion, John Bayley.
Richard Eyre, who's a British theatrical director, makes the most of the script by cutting back and forth between Iris and John in their youth and the couple as they grapple with Iris's demise. It's a neat gimmick but might not have worked in less skillful hands. Everyone involved uses a "less is more" attitude, and it was the way to go. I can't recommend Iris more highly. No gratuitous weeping, and the ironies are kept to a minimum. It's so nice not to be hit on the head with a mallet.
Sean Penn is one of our most gifted actors, but everyone makes mistakes. In I Am Sam, Penn — who can do just about anything — takes a turn that I'm not sure does him much good.
Penn plays Sam Dawson, a mentally retarded man who somehow manages to father a baby by a transient woman. The mother takes off, leaving Sam — who seems to have no resources — to raise his daughter, Lucy, alone. Dianne Wiest plays a kind neighbor who answers Sam's occasional parenting questions.
Jessie Nelson, who wrote the really awful scripts for The Story of Us and Stepmom, is the culprit here, and she directed this one too. In the former film, Nelson's one shining moment was in a monologue she gave Michelle Pfeiffer toward the conclusion. Here she does it again, and Pfeiffer triumphs. But for the hour and change that precedes this, Pfeiffer — who has never looked more radiant — is undermined at every turn. As the lawyer who must defend Sam's right to keep Lucy, Pfeiffer is just lost in hapless shtick. She can't decide whether the character is a bitch or an edgy career woman who needs love. She plays all sides of the game and wins no points.
I Am Sam, like the two movies cited above, is ultimately manipulative emotional junk. Not much of it has the ring of truth. Wherever Sam goes, evil people lurk ready to destroy him. Is this possible? Maybe I'm living in a different world, but most people would pull for a mentally retarded man trying to make a go of it in the world. Instead this gang works overtime to try and bring him down. There's a lot of moustache twirling as Sam's situation gets worse and worse. And none of it is believable.
You half expect the social worker on Lucy's case or the judge to trip Sam in the hallway or call him names.
The movie is also overburdened by a soundtrack of Beatles songs (covered by various artists, none by the Beatles) and a vague theme that Sam is a Beatles savant. The songs are mostly jolly, full of the Beatles' basic optimism, and don't seem to be in synch with the really serious issues going on here.
I kept thinking of the Cat Stevens songs on the Rushmore soundtrack and how their whimsy fit in so well with the mood of the piece. There's nothing whimsical or fun about wrongly removing a child from a parent's custody, and songs like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" sound kind of silly as counterpoint. Sean Penn's brother Michael, and his wife Aimee Mann, contributed a cover version of the Beatles' "Two of Us."
Sean Penn's gotten a lot of buzz for this performance, and there's no question that he worked hard on it. But a little Ratso Rizzo goes a long way, and there are times when even Penn seems a tad confused about how much Sam really knows or how competent he is. Penn may get a nomination, but the work is not up to par with his best stuff, like Sweet and Lowdown or Dead Man Walking.
I also didn't care much for the fidgety, shaky camera work, a trademark of the producers of thirtysomething and Once and Again — Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz — who made Sam. The scene when Pfeiffer's character is introduced, in particular, was one of the most annoying things I've ever sat through. The scenes in Pfeiffer's office also are reminiscent of Miles Drentell's office in those two series, all muted cold colors and nervous, gossipy secretaries. You'd think maybe someone who'd actually worked in an office could write those scenes — they're right out of Hollywood Fantasy 101.
Seeing I Am Sam and Iris back-to-back was an interesting lesson, indeed. All the subtlety and nuance of Iris was mostly lost in Sam and that was too bad. But it showed what one director could make of material with the potential to be melodrama, and what another couldn't get hold of.