Movie director Tom Shadyac—best known for zany blockbuster comedies like Ace Ventura and Bruce Almighty—inhabited a world many of us would envy, adorned by a lucrative Hollywood career, extravagant 17,000-square-foot mansion and even a private jet.
Then one day, everything changed. Shadyac took a nasty head-banging fall off his bicycle leaving him with debilitating post-concussion syndrome, agonizing symptoms and no guarantee he’d ever recover. As Shadyac says, “After several months of torture, I welcomed death.”
But unexpectedly, Shadyac began to heal and with it came a new-found sense of urgency to share the revelations he discovered during his turmoil: namely that the prizes and wealth he had amassed weren’t all they were cracked up to be. And since it was the world—media, culture, school—that sent young Tom a clear message that winning and getting lots of cool stuff would make him really happy (newsflash—it didn’t), he was compelled to explore two heavyweight questions: what’s wrong with our world, and what can we do about it?
To figure it all out, Shadyac did what he does best. He grabbed a camera and a film crew to document his conversations with prominent thinkers such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, biologist Elisabet Sahtouris and linguist Noam Chomsky in a search to better understand life. The interviews in I AM are illuminating, thought provoking and ultimately hopeful, with a particularly eloquent Thom Hartmann beautifully articulating the nuance of his ideas.
Yet what struck me most about I AM was Shadyac himself. Through his storytelling, he takes the audience on a journey that is both deeply personal and unabashedly generous. We watch as he emerges from a painful injury and uses it as an opportunity to rediscover who he is and what matters most. Despite his Hollywood credentials, Shadyac comes across as a relatable everyman. Like Tom, how many of us have won the thing we most wanted—whether a job, relationship or possession—only to find its allure wanes over time? Then we feel driven to search for the next big thing that will make us happy again. That search is so common, there’s even a name for it. Psychologists call it the hedonic treadmill.
In I AM, the earnest Shadyac jumps off his shiny hedonic treadmill and makes a stunning decision that is at the heart of this film. As he describes it, “Something happened that forced me to rethink my priorities and take a sharp turn into uncharted territory.”
Often when we’re in “uncharted territory” and creating a completely new paradigm for our lives, as Shadyac is, we need to call in the troops to help us make sense of it all. And I believe that’s what these interviews do for the likeable Shadyac. He’s seeking evidence that he’s on the right track. And as we watch his life unfold in a new direction, I get the feeling he truly is.
The film is superbly photographed by Roko Belic who is seen briefly on camera. Interestingly, Shadyac executive produced Belic’s own documentary Happy, an exploration into the stories and science of human happiness. It appears that Shadyac is on a heartfelt mission to use film as a vehicle to not only entertain, but to stimulate a conversation with a higher purpose, and I applaud him for that.
I AM won’t give you all the answers to life, but it will inspire you with new and fascinating questions to ponder. And I think that’s exactly what Shadyac wants.
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