Ace Ventura director Tom Shadyac searches for the meaning of life
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
How do you go from directing Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, Bruce Almighty (and its sequel Evan Almighty) to a documentary like I Am, which captures a spiritual and intellectual journey to find meaning in the world? If you happen to be Tom Shadyac, the first step on this transitional path involves surviving a serious accident.
Shadyac, the over-achieving comic writer (at one time the youngest joke writer for Bob Hope) and director known for getting Jim Carrey to speak out of his butt, suffered from post-concussion syndrome after a biking accident, and spent months in a severe depressive state, which fortunately stopped just short of sending him into a suicidal tailspin. He ended up retreating from daily life and activities because he was either unable or unwilling to stand the attention and contact with the outside world.
As he gradually made his way back, he began to question what it was that had repelled him during those dark months. His initial answers landed close to home. Was the life of excess that he had become accustomed to accentuating his phobic desire to remain in seclusion? He then refashioned the questions he needed to find answers to: What’s wrong with the world and what can we do about it?
With these new queries to guide him, Shadyac did what anyone in his position might do. Ever the filmmaker, he gathered a small crew and went in search of academics, philosophers, religious figures and a host of modern thinkers, and got them talking on-camera about the state of the world. This isn’t a new idea. The most successful and heady versions of this genre of film are probably What the Bleep? and Examined Life.
Bleep mixed a fictional narrative about a photographer (Marlee Matlin) who winds up sliding down a metaphysical rabbit hole into the world of quantum mechanics and odd science; a realm that blended and linked science and spirituality in equal measure. Examined Life stuck to a more straightforward documentary approach, but dropped a group of intellectuals and modern philosophers into contemporary settings and allowed them to expound upon their theories in the midst of daily life.
I Am goes decidedly in the opposite direction. Shadyac is, at his core, a mainstream moviemaker, a comedic artist with an ear attuned to the broadest audience available to him, which means even though he is an obviously bright and intellectually curious man, he wants his journey to resonate with the everyday person. So, when he engages in a discussion about quantum entanglement, he renders the interconnectedness of the idea in a framework that multiplex moviegoers will grasp.
And yet, that is the problem with the film. I Am is not the kind of film that will play in the multiplexes. Shadyac’s existential quest and the impact it had on his life won’t attract teens or thirty-somethings eager to escape the grinding realities of a bad economy or relationship woes. It won’t reach that audience because they haven’t had the kind of slide that triggered things for Shadyac and likely, even if they do, they won’t be in the position he was in to embark on this kind of search for answers. That simple and yet profound reality limits the film and even the best reception it could garner, because to truly have impact, Shadyac should have stuck to the intellectual high ground. What’s the point of dumbing down enlightenment?
Reach DCP freelance writer T.T. Stern-Enzi at firstname.lastname@example.org.