REVIEW: Sam [2016]

Score: 3/10 | ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: September 20, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Vision Films
Director(s): Nicholas Brooks
Writer(s): Nicholas Brooks & John A. Gallagher / Nicholas Brooks (story)

“I kinda like being the only guy in New York with a gynecologist”

Even though Nicholas Brooks is about thirty years too late for his gender-swapping, chauvinistic rom-com Sam, he does end up successfully subverting expectations. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a good movie. There are enough fades to black to make me drowsy and unaware of whether or not my eyelids were closing, the physical comedy feels like amateurs on stage at dinner theater, and the sexism—while intentionally broad for Brooks’ thesis—is so blatant that you have to question if it’s possible to call the film a comedy without condoning its bigotry. But somehow, despite everything wrong with execution and tone, the resolution proves extremely progressive, timely, and surprisingly honest. Sadly I’m not sure how many casual viewers will watch long enough to discover this truth.

Think 18 Again! for millennials to get an idea of what Sam is about. That fact alone should give you pause because the George Burns vehicle wasn’t very good when it was released let alone looking back from 2016. The concept is that a womanizing prick like Sam (Brock Harris) can only understand gender equality, compassion, and humility if he’s turned into a woman (Natalie Knepp‘s Samantha). His drunken lech craves sex, steals ideas from his female coworkers, and feeds directly into the pocket of his equally revolting boss Seymour (James McCaffrey) until one fateful night of hedonism leads Sam to a mysterious store in the village. The shopkeeper (Stacy Keach) apparently omnisciently knows everything about him, plies him with strong magical tea, and voilà! Man becomes woman.

We’re talking twenty minutes to introduce this transformation, twenty minutes to deal with a reformed Sam’s lamenting at the end, and an hour-long slog in between of repetitious frustration and chauvinism disgustingly dismissed as “guys being guys.” Not enough that we have to continuously watch Seymour hit on Samantha and everyone else in the office, we must also endure his girlfriend Lulu (Morgan Fairchild) setting feminism back decades. She uses sex to get her way more than anyone in the film, misguidedly forcing Seymour to be who he is because that’s the way she likes him. It’s Lulu who makes Samantha see Alexander Blondell (Bryan Batt) for a makeover because being a “real woman” is looking pretty and having correct etiquette to deserve men’s respect.

Yes, the film hoping to make a dickhead empathetic is as close-minded and archaic as the character it pretends to abhor. It asks us to laugh as two men stare at Allie Schulz‘s butt with tongues on the floor. It hopes we giggle at Mister Blondell chastising Samantha for looking frumpy, betting her that men will fawn in two weeks. Where’s the message about being yourself and achieving equality simply because we’re all humans and deserve it? Brooks instead pushes a chauvinistic agenda that woman must look and act like men dictate to get ahead. He should be using this makeover nonsense as a way for Samantha to reject sexism and own who she is, not as a prison trapping her inside the stereotype her former self demanded.

How can Samantha learn Sam’s way was wrong when her evolution is becoming everything he desired? It makes no sense. Brooks forgets the meaning of his own film’s conceit because he decides to shift focus towards the romantic ideal of falling in love with your best friend instead. This concept looms large throughout from Sam’s BFF Doc (Sean Kleier) and fiancé Cynthia (Sarah Scott) obviously settling for each other to another friend Stephen (Tom Pelphrey) acting like marriage is winning a 1950s housewife to clean while he screws his secretary. The sole reason this focal shift works is that it brings Sam and Doc closer. Relinquishing metaphor by turning Sam transsexual would have better served a world picketing Target bathrooms, however. Don’t let bigots pretend what’s happening isn’t.

Because that’s exactly what is happening: a romance between a man identifying as a woman and a heterosexual man. Allusions to a budding relationship with Sam’s assistant Margaret (Lucille Sharp) are merely allusions. The subplot helps Samantha open her eyes to the lie she lived as a man and is the one true moment of growth in this entire film, (Samantha giving Stephen’s wife advice is mansplaining whether two female actors are onscreen or not), but loving Margaret is only possible if Samantha transforms back. She wants to, of course, but she also wants to see how real her feelings for Doc are as a woman. The choice isn’t therefore about being kinder or more tolerant. It’s about discovering an identity beneath a façade he/she no longer recognizes.

Sam might have been worthwhile if Brooks stayed true to this throughout. Stop trying to infuse obsolete humor that negates your motivation simply to make the film more palatable for general audiences because that too defeats your purpose. More of what’s onscreen feeds stereotypes and gender bias than shines the light on it being wrong. The comedy only works if we believe those things—there’s nothing ironic on display here. So you either laugh by completely missing the point or you sit in cringing silence and risk getting fed up enough to walk out before the good stuff occurs. The film does a disservice to its resolution by transforming the pig into a manic pixie dream girl rather than a complex human finding herself removed from societal pressure.

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