New Video // 2000 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // April 22nd, 2005
"He likes his work more than he likes himself. And if he has to destroy himself in order to refill the tank, so be it." -- Sam Manning, a.k.a. Sam The Man
There's an interesting idea for a movie contained in the final scenes of Sam The Man, about a writer who deliberately sabotages his personal relationships so that he'll have something to write about. By the time we've gotten there, though, it's too little too late -- we've already been forced to sit through the self-involved, depressing little tale of a self-involved, depressing little man.
Of course, it is possible to take such a character and give him a film that's less off-putting, distant, and mopey -- Woody Allen has been doing it for years. Allen's films -- especially his more scathingly personal works like Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry -- have provided the primary inspiration for Sam The Man (there's a reason he's mentioned multiple times during the course of the DVD commentary track), but director Gary Winick and writer-star Fisher Stevens (Nina Takes a Lover) only know the words, not the music. There's a necessary tone, a way of handling this material that Allen understands makes it not only more palatable, but resonant -- one gets the sense that Woody is laying his demons bare for the viewer's scrutiny, but in doing so is also seeking some kind of redemptive self-awareness. On the other hand, Sam Manning, the hero (if such a word can possibly be used here) of Sam The Man, is an unlikable bastard, through and through.
When we first meet Sam, he's struggling to write a follow-up novel to his first book, Tall Glass of Water. Though we never hear whether or not that book was a success, Sam is recognized everywhere he goes by everyone he encounters (yeah, right). He's engaged to Cass (Annabella Sciorra, Chasing Liberty), a photographer (I think) who's sweet and genuine and trusting -- everything Sam is not, raising questions as to what she could possibly see in him. Despite his best efforts to remain faithful to Cass, Sam is unable to resist his inner bastard and ultimately succumbs to an affair with a realtor (Maria Bello, The Cooler) he meets in a restaurant. From there, the floodgates are open -- Sam becomes his usual self-absorbed, selfish self (say that ten times fast), attempting to screw anyone who will let him -- both literally and figuratively.
When faced with a protagonist as unpleasant as Sam, there are two possible approaches a film can take: either make sure he's written or acted in such a way that he's likable to the audience, or make sure he is likable to the other characters. If we don't like him (and we don't like Sam Manning), then we need to at least see what the other characters see in him -- especially when the story revolves around people throwing themselves at him in both a professional and personal capacity. Sam The Man simply expects us to swallow this premise; they don't understand that you can't just tell us something, you've got to sell us on it (even the most outlandish fantasy films -- the ones that work, anyway -- understand this concept). Therein lies the fatal flaw of director Gary Winick's movie: It presents us with a central figure who is nothing more that a waste of time, both for the other characters and for the viewer.
The DVD of Sam The Man, provided by New Video, is a mixed bag -- it offers poor audio and video quality, while still providing a handful of decent extras. The film was shot on digital video as part of a new movement Gary Winick was trying to incite; it was meant not only to provide a kind of test run for the DV format, but to serve as a calling card to encourage other directors to shoot digitally. Unfortunately, New Video hasn't gone to much effort to see to it that the picture and sound quality on the DVD don't suffer. As a result, the image, presented in a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer, is incredibly dark, grainy, and susceptible to the strobing that occurs from camera movement. Though much of that is due to the format on which the movie was shot (it was later transferred to film, however, and it's that print that the DVD comes from), it doesn't seem that even the correctible issues have been cleaned up. The 2.0 audio track is incredibly inconsistent -- even more so than the video quality -- leaving much of the dialogue ranging from too quiet to downright unintelligible.
What the disc lacks in technical quality, though, it nearly makes up for with its supplemental section. Besides a series of outtakes (when will someone recognize that actors blowing their lines or laughing during takes is not inherently funny?), there are some deleted scenes, a commentary track, and a making-of featurette that are at least as good as, if not better than, the film itself. The deleted scenes are primarily gratuitous, but at least they provide a glimpse at how the disc could have looked; they were not transferred to film, and therefore have a brighter, cleaner "video" appearance. The commentary track, by Winick and Stevens, is a good deal more fun and informative than the movie; they discuss how they shot the film on a low budget (stealing shots, using actors' actual apartments for locations) and point out the number of celebrity friends they roped into making quick appearances in the film (look fast for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit's Mariska Hargitay as an extra in a restaurant coatroom). The best bonus feature, though, is a 15-minute piece in which Winick discusses the DV movement he was inspired to trigger. As with Robert Rodriguez, it's exciting to see established directors attempting to take feature filmmaking into new and (possibly) more accessible directions.
With all of Sam The Man's shortcomings, it's strange that Winick would go on to essentially remake it a few years later with his festival hit, 2002's Tadpole (also shot on DV, incidentally), righting the wrongs committed in the former film. The hero of Tadpole, a teenager played by X2's Aaron Stanford, is not unlike Sam Manning: philandering, self-centered, snobbish and proud. We may not like Stanford, but at least we see why everyone else does -- he's incredibly charming, well-spoken, and cultured. That film, too, feels inspired by the works of Woody Allen, but it has a better understanding of how Allen managed to humanize his flawed characters without begging for our sympathies. Sam The Man couldn't care less if we're left in the cold. It's like its own protagonist that way.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary Featuring Writer-Actor Fisher Stevens and Director Gary Winick
* Deleted Scenes