Here's the budget of Tom Shadyac's last movie: $175 million. Here's the budget of his latest: a handycam and some airline tickets. After a nasty concussion and a stare down at his mortality, the director of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Evan Almighty looked at his mansion and stable of Mercedes and resolved, "The world I was living in was a lie, and the game I thought I'd won was destroying the world." And so Shadyac set out to make amends: he sold his house, gave away his fortune and made this documentary in which the puckish, ponytailed Hollywood dropout seeks the meaning of life. The answers, or motions toward an answer, are fodder for stoners, college sophomores and the sentimental, but you have to respect Shadyac for trying—and if his reward isn't found at the box office, I don't think he'll mind.
Shadyac's mission is to meet the great thinkers of life and ask them two questions: What's wrong with our world? And what are we going to do about it? Of course, he doesn't just barge in and barrel away. First, he introduces himself to, say, Reverend Desmond Tutu, and then the Reverend smiles and says he's never heard of Ace Ventura. (That Shadyac includes those moments proves he still has a sense of humor, especially at his own expense.)
He's expecting to hear that humans are selfish brutes in need of a peaceful revolution, like taming a pride of wild lions. But his theory—and the documentary—about faces when he meets a series of scientists who argue that the animal kingdom is innately cooperative. And if bears and ants and sardines can get along, so should we.
The cooperation question has bedeviled zoologists who want to explain why a hungry chimp would share its food with a neighbor. One argument is that generosity is actually an insurance policy, a pragmatic pay-it-forward. I feed you today; you'll feed me tomorrow. And chimps that build a network of allies are more likely to survive a famine and live on to reproduce, thus shaping a sharing trait in their descendents.
Shadyac spins cooperation in a different direction. I Am takes the sharing instinct as proof that all living beings are interconnected. We're hardwired for compassion, he cheers. In fact, that plugged-in empathy is why we titter nervously when a guy gets hit in the nuts on America's Funniest Home Videos, or when Ace Ventura falls into a shark tank. Is Shadyak right? Well, maybe when it comes to his dad, a doctor at a children's hospital. And maybe when it comes to the documentary's stand-out guest star: a bowl of yogurt that can tell when he's stressed. (No, really—it's measured by electrodes.) I can't explain how the yogurt senses moods anymore than Shadyak can change the world. But if 1/10th of the people who've seen his other movies watch this one and then go home and smile at their neighbor, that's better than if he hadn't tried at all.
Director/Screenwriter: Tom Shadyac
Producer: Dagan Handy
Running time: 76 min
Release date: February 18 Portland, March 11 LA, March 18 NY