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 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 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.
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 clichés. 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.
Occasionally, the talking heads make debatable leaps in logic. The consensus decision-making observable in flocks of birds in flight or herds of animals moving as one toward a watering hole gets described as a kind of democratic electoral process, with, for instance, the birds “voting” with every wing stroke. The idea of such nonstop elections in the animal kingdom seems dubious at best.
And though it’s interesting to learn that in his The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin uses the word “love” 95 times and his famous phrase “survival of the fittest” only twice, what conclusion can you really draw from that?
In fact, Shadyac lets his talking heads draw most of the conclusions while relegating himself to too few appearances on camera — he is a very funny guy. The approach nonetheless is lighthearted, and besides, he probably isn’t expecting audiences to buy everything that’s said here.
The general conclusion of those he consulted is that there is much that is right with the world rather than wrong. People do prefer to cooperate and do naturally feel compassion. It is a modern, Western society that has superimposed “values” that are contrary to natural man. (Eastern societies are not much consulted — I Am is far too Western-centric for its own good.)
But the optimism he revels in as his inquiry winds up feels earned. There is scientific evidence backing up much of the wisdom. The heart apparently does talk to the brain more than the other way around. A scientist does put sensors into a bowl of yogurt to illustrate how Shadyac’s own emotions can actually impact that yogurt sitting in front of him. When he merely mentions his lawyer, the meter swings madly into the negative, one of the funnier moments of a film that has more than a few.
Docs have been coming down on humanity so hard in recent years — from An Inconvenient Truth to the latest Oscar winner, Inside Job — that it’s refreshing to bask in a bit of optimism coming from a nonfictional film.
Indeed, what can be more optimistic than Shadyac filming himself back on his bicycle racing down the Malibu canyons? Of course, he is wearing a helmet.
Relase date Friday, March 11 in Los Angeles (Paladin)
Director-screenwriter Tom Shadyac
Producer Dagan Handy
Executive producers Jennifer Abbott, Jonathan Wilson
No MPAA rating, 78 minutes