I Am | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published May 11, 2011 at 9:27 a.m.

My guess is that, while savoring such cinematic milestones as The Nutty Professor, Patch Adams and Evan Almighty, very few of us suspected their director, Tom Shadyac, would someday make a movie about the meaning of life. But he has. And that’s not even the biggest surprise. The biggest surprise is that it’s actually worth seeing.

Shadyac, of course, is also the guy who made Jim Carrey a household name with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty. He made millions, bought mansions, had a fleet of luxury cars and a jet. Then a funny thing happened. He realized he wasn’t any happier than he’d been before achieving mega-success.

Then a horrible thing happened. In 2007, a bicycle accident left Shadyac with a crippling case of postconcussion syndrome, a condition so painful and debilitating it frequently leads to suicide. Fortunately, the filmmaker’s symptoms eventually abated. The brush with mortality, however, left him a changed man. “The world I was living in was a lie,” he concluded. “The game I thought I’d won was destroying the world.”

Shadyac decided to make a movie to explain his revelation, but not before selling his 17,000-square-foot palace, moving into a Malibu mobile-home community and giving away a good chunk of his fortune. In the months that followed, he filmed interviews with a dozen or so academics, authors, historians, scientists and spiritual leaders, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He posed two questions to them: “What is wrong with the world?” and “What can we do about it?”

The result is I Am, a one-of-a-kind documentary that’s new-age flaky in some places and undeniably illuminating in others. There’s a good deal of humor in it, too. Shadyac is still an extremely funny guy. Nobody gets a bigger kick out of it than he does, for example, when he asks some of these deep thinkers whether they’re familiar with his hit films, and they look at him like he’s speaking Martian.

The film wanders somewhat, to put it kindly, but its primary themes are the interconnection of everything in the natural world and the revelation that, contrary to popular belief, human beings are hardwired for cooperation and compassion.

The flaky bits include one scientist’s assertion that the heart generates waves of energy that send messages to other hearts like a station tower transmitting to TVs. In another scene, Shadyac communicates with a blob of yogurt.

The movie’s main thrust, though, is that more is innately right with the world than wrong with it. People are by nature cooperative, and virtually everything we’ve heard about Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory is a distortion of his writing. In On the Origin of Species, we’re told, Darwin references that concept only twice, while he mentions love 95 times.

One thing everyone in the film appears to agree on is that man’s true nature has been perverted by a Western culture that encourages the pursuit of personal success at the expense of others. For ages, we’re told, indigenous cultures have considered such priorities a form of mental illness. We’re shown familiar images contrasting the tremendous wealth enjoyed by a few with the poverty imposed on the many, and invited to change the world with small, individual gestures. “How do you eat an elephant?” asks a jolly Tutu. “One bite at a time.”

Hollywood millionaire chucks it all to save the world. Let’s face it: At first glance, I Am makes for something of an easy target. On closer inspection, though, it also makes for an enlightening and uplifting experience, rare among documentaries these days. Sure, Shadyac may be in over his head here, and the movie does feature a fruitcake or two, but you have to give the guy credit. Whether it’s broadcasting secret messages or not, his heart is in the right place.