The slick Hollywood phony basking in materialistic splendor while his soul goes fatally unnourished has long been a fixture of Hollywood redemption fables, many of which revolve around blowhard moguls overtly based on real-life super-producer Joel Silver. Movies like The End Of Violence, Grand Canyon, and I’ll Do Anything use Silver surrogates to instill glib, reductive life lessons, but in I Am, a peculiar new vanity project, director Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Bruce Almighty, Patch Adams) posits himself as the quintessential Hollywood achiever in need of a spiritual awakening. Shadyac didn’t need to channel his angst into narrative fiction: He just needed to look in the mirror to find a symbol of Hollywood’s arrogance and misplaced priorities.
Shadyac’s evolution from Hollywood powerbroker to spiritually minded humanitarian who gave away many of his belongings in a bid to live more righteously began with a debilitating bike accident that left him with a host of maladies and brought him to the verge of suicide. As he searches for a way to ease his pain, Shadyac takes stock of his life and sets out on a quest to answer some of life’s greatest questions. What’s wrong with the world? How do we go about fixing it? Is the fundamental nature of man essentially benevolent or cruel? These are all questions for either society’s most profound philosophers, or the man who directed Ace Ventura.
The world might seem cruel, but Shadyac has nothing but good news. After talking with some of the world’s top thinkers, he ascertains that we’re hard-wired for cooperation rather than competition, and that when it comes right down to it, all we really need is love. I Am is the documentary equivalent of a “Co-Exist” bumper sticker, 79 minutes of happy talk, Koyaanisqatsi-style slow-motion stock footage, and false uplift that aspires to elevate the human spirit even as it clouds the mind. There’s a riveting story here about a man who attained the pinnacle of professional success, only to throw it all away in a bid for a life rich with meaning. But since we barely knew Shadyac before his accident, his transformation never really registers, and his filmmaking remains heavy-handed and maudlin. Facing down the ultimate darkness may have made him a better human being, but it didn’t make him a better filmmaker.