Simon Birch (Canada/United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Somewhere in Simon Birch, buried not too deeply beneath the surface, lie the seeds of a moving story. Unfortunately, as told by Mark Steven Johnson, this loose adaptation of John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" is a relentlessly manipulative tear-jerker. It's an excursion into a melodramatic morass that occasionally becomes difficult to sit through because it's so cloying. That's a shame, because the material has a lot of potential, but the approach is so heavy- handed that we're often left more exasperated and irritated than moved.

One critical mistake that the film makes is to frame the main tale as a flashback, complete with an unnecessary voiceover narration provided by Jim Carrey the now-serious actor. (In his few moments on screen, Carrey continues to show what he exhibits in The Truman Show - the ability to charm an audience even when he's not contorting his body and facial expressions into strange configurations.) The framing portion of the film, which lasts for about three minutes at the outset, reveals two key plot points: that the title character dies at age 12 and that he is responsible for the death of the narrator's mother. These revelations effectively kill any dramatic tension.

Once we're done with the 1998 introduction featuring Carrey, the narrative takes us back to Gravestown, Maine in 1964. This is the kind of small-town America that we often see in movies set in the '60s: quaint, quiet, and supposedly religious. The main character is 12-year old Joe Wentworth (Joseph Mazzello), the bastard son of Rebecca Wentworth (Ashley Judd, sporting short, black curls), who has steadfastly refused to name the man who impregnated her. (Any viewer who stops to think about this for five seconds will easily figure out who it is.) Because Joe doesn't have a father, he is something of a pariah, so it's only natural the he becomes best friends with the town's other oddball character, Simon Birch (Ian Michael Smith).

Simon is afflicted with dwarfism. The "smallest delivery in the history of Gravestown Memorial Hospital," he has grown into adolescence as a severely vertically challenged individual. Almost as a compensation for his small size, Simon is endowed with a profound intellect. He also has a firm faith in God and a belief that he has been placed on Earth to do some great deed. When Joe asks him how he can be sure, he responds, "I don't need proof. I have faith." Rebecca adores Simon almost as much as her own son, and, because Simon's own parents have all-but-disowned him, she has become like a mother to him.

In some ways, Simon Birch plays like an extended episode of the saccharine television series, Touched by an Angel, with Simon constantly reassuring anyone who will listen that God has a plan for him. There is tragedy along the way, as a freak accident robs Joe of his mother. Actually, the saddest thing about this plot turn is that it takes Ashley Judd, easily the best thing about the film, off the screen while there's still over an hour remaining. Following Rebecca's death, the two boys begin a search for Joe's real father, occasionally aided by Rebecca's boyfriend, Ben Goodrich (Oliver Platt), and the local reverend (David Strathairn).

From time-to-time, in spite of Johnson's lack of subtlety as a director, Simon Birch manages a genuinely poignant moment amidst all the overdone melodrama. For example, shortly after his mother's death, Joe realizes that, when a person dies, their presence slips away gradually, much as their scent fades from their clothing and linen. More such keen observations would have elevated Simon Birch to a higher level. As it is, the movie seems false to the core. And, for some bizarre reason, there's just enough unnecessary profanity thrown in to raise the rating from a "PG" to a "PG-13."

Johnson is almost certainly a better craftsman of comedy than drama. Two of his previous screenplays, Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men, were at their best when they avoided anything serious. Likewise, the most relaxed and enjoyable sequences in Simon Birch are those that stray into the comic arena, such as a Christmas pageant where Simon's overactive hormones have amusing consequences. Unfortunately, the disappointing aspects of the movie outweigh the worthwhile ones, and the only viewers likely to appreciate what Simon Birch has to offer are those who don't mind movies that engage in the shameless pushing of emotional buttons. Almost everyone else will endure this film dry-eyed and silent, with only a slight grimace betraying the uncomfortable effects of unskilled manipulation.

Simon Birch (Canada/United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 1998-09-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1