When a newspaper posed the question "What's Wrong with the World?", G.K. Chesterton, novelist and theologian, reportedly answered: "I am." The implication that if you're not putting things right then you're part of what's wrong inspired filmmaker Tom Shadyac (say Shady-ack) to make the nonfiction film I Am. A sincere and engaging series of encounters with the likes of Bishop Desmond Tutu, journalist Lynne McTaggart, and evolutionary biologist Elizabet Sahtouris, it is Shadyac's personal inquiry into the nature of what's wrong with the world and how to make it better.
It may sound funny that the director of Ace Ventura, Pet Detective; The Nutty Professor; and Evan Almighty - the guy who identifies himself as the one who "made Jim Carrey talk out of his [rear], Eddie Murphy don a fat suit and turned Steve Carell into the fifth member of ZZ Top" - is concerned with healing a sick world.
The impulse came from trying to heal himself. After a bike accident, he was disabled by post-concussion syndrome and was on sensory overload. Light was blinding, sounds deafening. His brain lost the ability to filter. He downsized from a 17,000-square-foot Pasadena mansion to a trailer in a Malibu mobile home park. He renounced private jets for a bicycle.
He wasn't suicidal, but "welcomed death." He wanted to leave a testament of what he had come to know: That wealth and happiness are not synonymous, that community and cooperation are more soul-nourishing than solo achievement and competition. He began to feel better.
In short, he was much like the title filmmaker in the Preston Sturges satire Sullivan's Travels. After huge success with frivolous comedies, Sully wants to make a serious movie that will change lives - only to find that comedy is more life-affirming than message movies.
Happily, the frisky Shadyac does not sermonize. He is a puckish Sherpa to the frontiers of science and faith. (If his own Sherpas are political and religious progressives, then he would probably agree with Chesterton that "The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.") He asks questions that tickle viewers to consider his subject from different angles.
Is it natural for humans to be like Ivan Boesky, the arbitrageur who once pronounced that "greed is healthy," rather than like Mahatma Gandhi, who said, "Live simply, so others may simply live?"
From biologists to poets to clergymen, Shadyac's eloquent respondents talk about how in aboriginal cultures, cooperation is highly valued and competition is considered mental illness.
They speak of a popular misinterpretation of Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species references survival of the fittest twice and love 95 times.
They demonstrate how compassionate states renew our physiology, how science is moving from a Newtonian model of cause and effect to an entanglement model that assumes interconnectivity.
Shadyac illustrates the theories with indelible images. To show how consensus is hardwired in animals, he gives us footage of deer and migrating birds employing majority-rules decision making to determine when they go to the water hole or change flight patterns. To show the human reflex to connection, he gives us a shot of skydivers clutching hands on their exhilarating descent.
Did I enjoy Shadyac's film? Very much. Do I think he made many of his points more accessibly and entertainingly in Bruce Almighty? You bet.