YOU'VE PROBABLY never heard of director Tom Shadyac, but a few of his films should ring a bell: Bruce Almighty, Patch Adams, The Nutty Professor, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective—pretty heady stuff, there. So when Shadyac wrecked on his bicycle and conked his head, he suddenly got contemplative about his life and the world, and wanted to do something about it. That "it" is the documentary I Am, for which he traveled all the way from Malibu, California, to San Francisco, California, to chat up people who have never seen his movies, like Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky.
The childlike pretext to these conversations was to determine what is wrong with the world and how we can change it for the better. Yes, it really is that vague, but there are worse ways to while away the hours than to listen to what people like Tutu, Zinn, and Chomsky have to say. For all its ridiculously broad strokes, I Am has some interesting, informing moments, like reviewing scientific evidence that cooperation is ingrained in human and animal societies even more than competition, and that individuals are directly, meaningfully connected to the world—basically, these are all the good vibe-y messages you'd recognize from the new age section of the bookstore, backed with scientific credibility.
No doubt thanks to its wide-open premise, I Am struggles to find a meaningful conclusion. Shadyac's personal journey toward selling his mansion and taking up bicycle commuting isn't particularly compelling, and the feel-good messages about thinking positively and valuing relationships over money are rather difficult to sum up patly. I Am raises a few questions and draws attention to some interesting research, but it functions more as a conversation starter (it will be a big hit in philosophy classes) than a definitive statement. Clearly, it succeeded in making Shadyac feel better, though—which was, after all, the point.