You might be familiar with the work of director Gary Winick. He's the founder of InDigent, which produces ultra-low-budget DV productions, including his own highly regarded Tadpole (2002). He's also the helmer of the much-higher-budgeted Jennifer Garner concoction 13 Going on 30. Although Winick seems to be transitioning his career from microbudget experimental projects to big-budget family pleasers (witness next year's adaptation of Charlotte's Web, starring the ubiquitous Dakota Fanning, and Julia Roberts as the voice of Charlotte), he got his start in infinitesimal films like Sam the Man (2000), a movie with admirable intentions that you might call the tiniest of noble failures.
Winick envisioned a series of films produced with budgets of less than 100 grand, shot on cheap digital-video cameras, and created by craftsman willing to work for peanuts. If you've seen Tadpole, you've witnessed the best to come out of this project: a modestly effective character study that's downright ugly to look at. The image quality of Sam the Man, its predecessor, is just as hideous to behold, but its story, unfortunately, isn't nearly as engaging. Perhaps the most visually off-putting films I've ever witnessed on the big or small screen, Winick's experiments seem to be going for that grainy, low-budget, anti-gloss style that some filmmakers admire, but damn, this looks worse than any straight-to-video porn I've seen. When a stylistic choice becomes hard on the eyes and affects your basic comprehension of onscreen action, the style becomes merely poor filmmaking.
Like Tadpole, Sam the Man is a character study. Sam Manning (Fisher Stevens) is a struggling New York novelist whose single successful novel haunts him. He can't seem to write anything that approaches the artistic, trendy cynicism of his first novel. It's not that he has writer's block, really, but rather that he has impossibly high expectations to live up to, and everyone in his sphere of influence is hounding him to just finish that damned second novel. His relationship with Cass (Annabella Sciorra) is in a rut because of his increasing creative failures, which lead him to begin selling off his private collection of photographic art. Despite Cass's encouragement, Sam is angrily reluctant to take on a teaching post at the local university, insisting that he's a writer, not a teacher.
The plot so far holds promise, right? I'm a writer, and I easily fall under the sway of stories about fellow writers. But Sam the Man accomplishes the startling feat of alienating even this built-in audience member. With its clichéd situations and forced writing, the film begins quickly to frustrate. Worse, Sam is a remarkably unsympathetic character. He's a whiner, a cheater and a liar, and as he embarks on affair after affair, showing no remorse in the face of his impending marriage to the all-suffering Cass, you find yourself gritting your teeth whenever he's onscreen. It doesn't help that Stevens just isn't right for the lead role, looking awkward in his inexplicable Indiana Jones outfit, complete with brown fedora propped too high above his longish locks and high forehead.
I have no problem with insufferable characters, per se, but I need to understand at least a little about their motivations. Throughout Sam the Man, we get a character who's in search of answers, who seems to be on the road toward a fall and subsequent redemption. But I never really grasped what was at stake on that path. And although I must admit that the ending of Sam the Man ties up this character in a neatly cynical way, the ending doesn't feel earned. Here's an example of a character climax that deserves a better, more thought-out film.
The film, however, might be worth watching for its plethora of cameos. Watch for Luis Guzman as a crankily corrupt landlord, George Plimpton as himself, Rob Morrow as a well-intentioned university dean, Griffin Dunne as a fan of Manning's book, and Maria Bello in a larger role as one of Manning's conquests. Sometimes, these great performances are hard to make out in all the digital smearing and fuzziness, though.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
New Video presents Sam the Man in a horrible non-anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 presentation. Yes, it looks horrible—with substandard detail and hideously orange color palette—but it's not really the fault of the transfer. This shot-on-DV film just plain looks wretched. Shot in mostly natural light with cheap mini-DV cameras, Sam the Man carries with it all the ugliness of the worst shot-on-video production. It's a stylistic choice that some might say works with the subject matter, giving it a rawness and documentary-like quality, but this is painful to watch. The image is exceedingly soft and awash in digital-video artifacts. Grain is heavy, everything is indistinct, and colors are smeared and washed out. If you're familiar with the look of this director's Tadpole, you know what you're in for.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 2.0 track is center-focused, which is okay for these non-dynamic proceedings. Dialog is okay, clear but lacking in real depth. Only very mild ambient information finds its way to the left and right channels, let alone the surrounds. Bass is practically non-existent. The disc offers no subtitles.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The Audio Commentary with Director Gary Winick and Actor Fisher Stevens is a jovial track in which the two reminisce about the unique way this film was made. They describe the various guerilla tactics they used to get certain scenes on the fly, around New York. They laugh about certain scenes and shots, and in general provide a good discussion about the experience. Unfortunately, their banter sometimes devolves into the obvious—"Truth is hard. Truth hurts"—and the track contains perhaps one too many observations such as, "She's so good here." But overall, I'd recommend this track over the film's primary audio track.
A 15-minute Making Sam the Man featurette outlines the film's background as an extremely low-budgeted experimental project. Winick talks about the formation of his company and some of the projects he's produced.
You get 5 minutes of Deleted Scenes, as well as 10 minutes of Outtakes. Funny how outtakes are humorous only if you enjoy the film they're taken from. Nevertheless, this is the longest collection of outtakes I can recall viewing.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Sam the Man is interesting because of its low-budget genesis, but as a film, it leaves quite a bit to be desired. Although its ending is intriguing, it deserves a better film. The DVD offers awful image quality and substandard sound (both to be expected, considering the ideals of the production), as well as a modest array of supplements. Worth a rental at best.