Magazine article The New Yorker

Detour

Magazine article The New Yorker

Detour

Article excerpt

Tom Shadyac used to be the biggest comedy director going. His films, including "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," "The Nutty Professor," "Liar Liar," and "Bruce Almighty," grossed more than a billion and a half dollars around the world. He perfected the formula in which hard laughs are annealed with homilies: relinquish your power, follow your bliss, and don't talk out of your ass unless you're Jim Carrey and it totally kills.

Late last month, at Lincoln Center, Shadyac screened "I Am," a handmade documentary that cost a hundred and seventy-four million dollars less than his last comedy. Youthful and shaggy at fifty-one, the director welcomed the audience by saying that he hoped this film, unlike his others, would change the world. Met with mere politeness by a crowd that has a sizable stake in the world as it stands, Shadyac, looking worried, remarked, "You're so well behaved." After the screening, however, he was swarmed by young acolytes.

In "I Am," Shadyac narrates his own fall from--or perhaps into--grace: a tumble from a bicycle, in 2007, that led to a post-concussive infirmity so severe that he began, almost as a valediction, to canvas the world for meaning. The result is a passionate, if patchwork, film that interweaves interviews with evolution scientists and Desmond Tutu, quotations from Emerson and Einstein, a discussion of quantum entanglement, and footage of an emotionally susceptible dish of yogurt, all to suggest that the natural world is deeply interconnected--and that we are by nature cooperative, that markets don't measure our value, and that the heart, not the brain, is our primary organ. It's what he was saying all along in his comedies, but this time he's saying it with feeling. Shadyac's own response to his discoveries was to give up his private jet (as well as his cell phone), sell his seventeen-thousand-square-foot compound in Pasadena and move into a trailer park in Malibu, help build a shelter for the homeless and fund the rescue of African child soldiers, and tour around the country--sometimes by bicycle--screening the film.

At Trattoria dell'Arte, a few days after the screening, Shadyac prefaced a lunch conversation by following the monastic practice of emptying his pockets of his possessions: a billfold wrapped in a black scrunchie, and a white scrunchie. As his meal consisted of a cup of peppermint tea, the server's check-ins grew increasingly skeptical, but Shadyac always responded warmly: "I'm doing good, brother--how are you doing? …

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