The latest entry in a growing subgenre that might be called the what's-it-all-about documentary, "I Am" comes from an unlikely source: Tom Shadyac, director of such box-office-gold comedies as "Ace Ventura" and "Bruce Almighty." He's not joking in this semi-deep inquiry, a philosophical quest punctuated by face time with scientists, poets and elder statesmen including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn.
After a bicycle accident left Shadyac with debilitating post-concussion syndrome, the Hollywood player did some serious rethinking about success, status and stuff. When he'd recovered enough to begin making his first nonfiction film, he set out to answer two questions: What's wrong with our world? What can we do about it?
As with many documentaries, the "search" is really a collection of sound bites that validate the filmmaker's point of view. Shadyac plays Candide to a variety of experts in such paradigm-shift disciplines as the physics of consciousness and the biology of love. What lifts the film above its dubious boilerplate assemblage of talking heads and archival images is Shadyac himself. With his gentle, self-mocking humor, he comes across as an exceptionally mellow, earnest and likable guy.
And he walks the walk, not merely bemoaning the gap between the haves and have-nots but unloading his private jet, three-house estate and most of its contents. The film's title is not a proud declaration but an acceptance of responsibility. He holds himself up as a prime example of the conspicuous consumption that many native cultures consider a sign of mental illness.
The film could have benefited from even more of a personal edge. What was the fallout of his transformation? Did Shadyac's downsizing make his Hollywood pals uncomfortable?
But the accent is on big-picture optimism and the interconnectedness of all life (including, in a half-winking onscreen experiment, a dish of yogurt). The film's most intriguing argument points out the distortion of Darwin's theories to emphasize competition rather than cooperation. Yet if we've used science to validate our darker impulses, many of the emerging theories — and Shadyac's film — tend to deny them, veering dangerously close to cockeyed New Age create-your-reality positivity.
Tellingly, though, the comedy meister includes a conversation with someone who isn't convinced by his sunny musings: his father, who died in 2009 at 80. The cofounder of St. Jude hospital undoubtedly knew a thing or two about human nature.