MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Ian Michael Smith (Simon Birch), Joseph Mazzello (Joe Wenteworth), Ashley Judd (Rebecca Wenteworth), Oliver Platt (Ben Goodrich), David Strathairn (Rev. Russell), Dana Ivey (Grandmother Wenteworth), Beatrice Winde (Hilde Grove), Jan Hooks (Miss Leavey), Cecilley Carroll (Marjorie), Sumela Kay (Ann), Jim Carrey (Adult Joe Wenteworth)
"Simon Birch" is about a little boy who believes God intends for him to someday be a hero. Because this is a Hollywood film, we know that his day as hero will arrive before the final reel is over, but unfortunately, his heroic deed turns out to be so strikingly conventional that it is ultimately a let-down (and the atrociously bad deathbed scene that follows doesn't help matters).
As a matter of fact, conventional is the best word to describe the film as a whole. As many know, "Simon Birch" is an adaptation of John Irving's 1989 novel "A Prayer For Owen Meany." Well, to say adaptation isn't quite right. In actuality, the movie is so different from the book that Irving asked that the title character's name be changed, and he accepted a credit that I've never seen before: "suggested by a book by John Irving." Now that's an author distancing himself from a project.
That "Simon Birch" ultimately turns out to be a conventional melodrama is odd, considering the uniqueness of its source material. The movie tells the story of the titular character, a 12-year-old dwarf. Simon is played by 11-year-old first-time actor Ian Michael Smith, who in real life has a genetic disorder called Morquio's syndrome, which causes dwarfism. Smith is quite good in the role, although the screenplay by director Mark Steven Johnson doesn't allow him the range he seems capable of.
As Simon, the 37-inch tall Smith walks with an ambling, side-to-side kind of sway and speaks in a high-pitched voice that one character describes as being like "strangled mice." His thick glasses and crooked teeth give him a kind of odd charm, even when he's speaking in vulgar terms about the physical attributes of his best friend's mother (in addition to having a big heart, he's a horny little guy).
The story is narrated by Jim Carrey, playing the adult version of Simon's best friend, Joe Wenteworth (played as a child by Joseph Mazzello, who played Tim in "Jurassic Park"). Most of the story unfolds in an extended flashback in a small Maine town in 1964. Joe is the son of Rebecca Wenteworth (Ashley Judd), a constantly smiling, good-natured, ultra-sexy (it's her physical attributes Simon can't stop talking about), and liberated woman. How is she liberated? Rebecca got pregnant with Joe when she was 17, and she refuses to tell anyone who the father is.
The story meanders along for a while as a kind of buddy-buddy picture between Joe and Simon. The proceedings are sometimes interrupted by dark twists of fate, which are characteristic of Irving novels. For instance, when the baseball coach finally allows Simon to take a swing during a game (usually Simon just stands at the plate and gets walked because no pitcher can throw a ball in his tiny strike zone), his big shot clunks Rebecca on the head and kills her (I don't mind divulging that plot point because Carrey mentions it in the first five minutes of narration). However, the impact of the moment doesn't carry the same dark gravity (or dark humor) as it would in print. Somehow, it just seems kind of silly.
The movie then progresses on to Joe's search for his father, and Simon's continual search for the event that will make him a divine hero. Although there is never any explanation as to why Simon has this firm belief in his destiny, we know for sure that it didn't come from the local Catholic church, which is systematically ridiculed and criticized throughout the film.
If there's one thing in which Hollywood movies excel, it's subverting organized religion. "Simon Birch" never misses a chance--there's a wicked, chain-smoking Sunday school teacher played with comic relish by Jan Hooks, an inconsiderate and uptight minister, Rev. Russell (David Strathairn), and a Christmas pageant that turns into disaster when Simon, forced to play the baby Jesus, finds himself unable to keep his hands off the budding breasts of the pre-teen girl playing the Virgin Mary.
Unfortunately, as a whole "Simon Birch" is not all that funny, its drama is in forced terms, and it is certainly not the great statement about faith and fate that it wants to be. You can feel it striving to be the next "Forrest Gump," but somewhere the balance is off. The simplicity of its climax, the shameless melodrama of its story, and its odd stance on God and religion make it an unwieldy vehicle. It seems to want it both ways--to be a simple, sappy tearjerker and a deep, life-affirming philosophical tract.. As I see it, writer/director Johnson went wrong in one of two ways: either he removed too many of Irving's social statements from his screenplay, or he didn't remove enough.
©1998 James Kendrick