I Am Sam

Some movies melt your heart. “I Am Sam” microwaves it. Rather than go the long way around to your emotions — you know, with sympathetic characters and good writing — it uses movie shortcuts like retarded people and cute kids. Put those in a movie, and the tears are guaranteed, regardless of how clumsy or inept the movie is.

“I Am Sam” is about a retarded adult named Sam (Sean Penn) who fathered a child seven years ago and has raised her on his own, thanks to the mother walking out on him almost immediately after giving birth. The little girl is Lucy (Dakota Fanning), and if she’s not just the cutest thing in the world, then I don’t know what is. They have a sweet father-daughter relationship, and Lucy is only mildly concerned that, at 7 years old, she has the same mental capacity as her daddy.

Alas, the courts feel otherwise. Unless he can prove he’s a competent father, Sam will lose Lucy. Lucky for him, a high-powered attorney named Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer) is guilted by her colleagues into taking his case for free, but she has her work cut out for her. All of Sam’s friends are mentally challenged, too, which makes them less than ideal on the witness stand. His only non-retarded acquaintance is Annie (Dianne Wiest), and she’s agoraphobic and won’t leave the house.

The movie is smug, bent on using the Enlightened Retarded Guy to show us the error of our ways. Sure, he’s retarded, but at least he’s devoted to his daughter — which is more than you can say for the endless parade of contrasting examples the movie sets up for us. (One guy keeps correcting his son during a classroom presentation, a divorcing couple argues over which partner should be stuck with the kid, Rita herself doesn’t spend enough time with her son — and so on.)

And consider this: In the movie, anyone who even raises the idea that maybe a retarded man with a part-time job and no spouse is not the ideal parent is made out to be an unfeeling villain. Shame on you for even thinking such a thing!

Sean Penn gives more of an imitation (albeit a good one) than a performance, while Michelle Pfeiffer is embarrassingly flustered and high-strung as the lawyer. Little Dakota Fanning yanks the heartstrings like she’s starting a lawnmower.

Writer/director Jessie Nelson wrote the equally maudlin “Stepmom,” and her work on “I Am Sam” is no improvement. It is a film calculated to MAKE YOU CRY. If you like being manipulated in obvious ways, go for it.

C- (; PG-13, one harsh profanity and some other mild profanity.)