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Originally published February 24, 2011 at 3:01 PM | Page modified February 24, 2011 at 3:36 PM

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Movie review

'I Am': Rare feel-good documentary explores happiness and the meaning of life

A movie review of "I Am," directed by Tom Shadyac, who went from directing Jim Carrey's biggest hits ("Liar Liar," "Bruce Almighty") to this shoestring-budget nonfiction film about the miraculous nature of existence and the search for happiness.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'I Am,' a documentary directed by Tom Shadyac. 76 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Varsity.


Here's a rare feel-good documentary that earns its somewhat cockeyed optimism.

The premise suggests a nonfiction version of Preston Sturges' classic 1941 comedy "Sullivan's Travels," which starred Joel McCrea as a Hollywood comedy director who had been typed as a lightweight. Sullivan found success with "Ants in Your Pants of 1939" and other fluffy hits, but he really wanted to make "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," a socially conscious drama that reflected reality (yes, the Coen brothers borrowed that title for their 2000 film about the Great Depression).

Tom Shadyac found himself in a similar position after directing Jim Carrey's biggest hits ("Liar Liar," "Bruce Almighty"); success left him no happier with his mansion, swimming pool, expensive rugs and paintings. A nasty bike accident, plus the box-office failure of his most costly film, "Evan Almighty," put things in perspective.

Like a lot of people he knew, Shadyac had acquired more "stuff" than he needed. He'd also picked up various hypocrisies along the way — usually having to do with money or the lack of it — and decided to investigate what he was beginning to regard as a materialistic form of mental illness.

The 76-minute result, "I Am," is a mixture of relevant film clips ("Wall Street," "It's a Wonderful Life"), quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gandhi, plus contemporary interviews with experts in several fields.

Thom Hartmann, reaching for a definition of happiness, is particularly effective, and there are notable contributions from Noam Chomsky, Lynne McTaggart, David Suzuki and the late Howard Zinn.

Likely to be more controversial are discussions that focus on Charles Darwin, who is presented in a kinder, gentler light than usual; Shadyac leans toward cooperation rather than competition as a defining aspect of Darwin's view of the human race.

At such moments, he can appear to be out of his depth. Shots of sunset walks, watering holes and birds flying in formation are more decorative than illuminating. Especially toward the end, the movie seems to rush to conclusions.

A more leisurely running time (or DVD extras) might give more weight to episodes that emphasize that war is not inevitable and neither is a corrupt economic system. When Shadyac deals with the 9/11 attacks and their impact, you want to know more, not less.

Nevertheless, "I Am" (which was originally titled "Imagine") is for the most part a positive, expansive experience. The movie is open to the miraculous nature of existence and the potential for change rather extinction. It also celebrates the idea that a message movie can be funny and irrepressibly enthusiastic.

(All film proceeds go to The Foundation For I Am, which was established by Shadyac to fund several worthy causes.)

John Hartl:

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