Last fall I met the director Tom Shadyac at the Port Townsend Film Festival, where his new movie. “I Am,” was playing.
I hadn’t seen his film or anything, but Shadyac came up and gave me a big hug anyway. Clearly, this is either a Hollywood guy or someone who has suffered a brain injury and p
assed through various stages of spiritual enlightenment.
As it turns out, Shadyac is both. He directed the big comedy hits “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Bruce Almighty,” but he also had an accident that changed his life.
As he details in his documentary “I Am,” Shadyac was enjoying the fruits of his success, complete with lavish Los Angeles mansion and private airplane, when he crashed while riding a bicycle. A head injury brought on months of persistent headaches and sensitivity to light, which for a while Shadyac thought might never end.
He’s better now, but the experience radically shifted his priorities. And the result of the soul-searching is laid out in “I Am,” which allows Shadyac to propose the theory that maybe the world isn’t just getting worse and worse, and that maybe we’ve even got a shot at making it better.
Shadyac does this by delving into some facts and figures, and getting some certified smart people (Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky) to chime in on the subject of how we might improve things.
The central idea seems to be that people get discouraged by a perceived helplessness about the human condition. If we’re evolutionarily programmed toward self-interest, won’t we just keep splintering, devouring, going to war with each other?
The film argues that an evolutionary case could be made for cooperation and communication, that the fittest survivors might be those with an ability to work with others.
Because Shadyac’s default position is comedy, he knows enough to puncture his questing with jokes, even when he’s going a little “out there” to explore whether a dish of yogurt might be picking up on his emotional mood.
The film has some nice ideas, a rapid pace, and generally seems like not a bad thing at all for forward-thinking people and schoolkids to watch.
Its secret weapon is that Shadyac’s personality is so ingratiating and sincere that he tends to drag you along on whatever subject he’s looking at, even if his take is that of an amateur.
Maybe that’s the appeal: This is an amateur sharing his enthusiasm, and you can decide for yourself whether you think he’s onto something.
“I Am” ½
A documentary from Hollywood director Tom Shadyac, who began questioning the meaning of things after a head injury affected his life. This film has the humor you’d expect from the “Ace Ventura” director, and a certain ingratiating amateur’s appeal when it comes to delving into the issue of how we might make things better on the planet.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG for subject matter