You'll Laugh, You'll Cry, You'll Kiss $7 Goodbye

The opening credits of Simon Birch assert that it was "suggested" by John Irving's popular 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. Actually, it's a thin but relatively faithful adaptation of the first few chapters of Irving's comic ramble through the nature of religious faith, predestination, and heroism. Screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson, who also directed, reworked the material from a decade-spanning account of the Sixties into a small-town coming-of-age story spanning one year; additionally, he altered the title character's climactic Vietnam-era act of bravery to fit a mid-Sixties New England setting.

Johnson also changed the names of several characters -- Owen Meany has become Simon Birch -- and shifted the town from New Hampshire to Maine. These changes were the result of Irving's insistence that his title not be used if the book was adapted. Admirers of the novel will probably be grateful, in that it feels a bit less as if Owen Meany has been appropriated and downgraded.

He has, of course. The film is a feeble shadow of Irving's funniest and least self-conscious book, a book that won over even those of us who are not really fans. It need hardly be said that Johnson, who wrote the two Grumpy Old Men films, didn't create a cinematic equivalent to Irving's deadpan, sweetly hilarious narrative. But if you can set aside comparison (as is usually wise), Simon Birch isn't without its pleasures.

Indeed, it's probably just as well that Johnson jettisoned most of the novel's Forrest Gump-ian epic sweep and tried a less ambitious, more Touchstone Pictures-friendly approach -- a few laughs, a few jerked tears, and we're out of there happily enough. The story is narrated by Jim Carrey as the grown-up version of Joe, Simon Birch's inseparable childhood pal. Twelve-year-old Joe is played by Joseph Mazzello, the sensitive T. Rex bait in Jurassic Park, while the diminutive Simon is played by eleven-year-old newcomer Ian Michael Smith.

Simon's survival of his own infancy is regarded by those around him as a miracle, and Simon himself interprets this literally. He believes he is destined to a mission of messianic heroism, though he's unclear on the details. The dour minister (David Strathairn) and Sunday school teacher (Jan Hooks) of the local Episcopal church he attends squirm at Simon's fervor; as old-school Protestants, they're accustomed to an abstract, genteel, impersonal faith. Joe and his saintly, lushly beautiful single mother (Ashley Judd) are comfortable with Simon's eccentricities, and the boy becomes their adopted brother and son, respectively (his biological parents, disappointed by his size, have forsaken him).

From this basic context, the film bounces lazily among several strands: Joe's curiosity about his father's identity, which his mother has kept secret; his relationship with his mother's new suitor, an easygoing drama teacher (Oliver Platt); and the freak tragedy of which Simon is the unwitting and blameless cause. There's also a crowd-pleasing slapstick set piece in which Simon reluctantly plays the role of Baby Jesus in an ill-fated Christmas pageant.

None of this is handled with any particular cinematic grace. Johnson's favorite running gag is to play Peggy Lee singing "Fever" whenever Simon is seized with lust. But corny and heavy-handed as the comedy is, I was glad there was so much. It's far better than the film's earnest side.

A first-rate cast helps keep matters light; not just Mazzello, Platt, and Judd, but also reliables such as Hooks and Dana Ivey and Beatrice Winde in supporting roles. Only Strathairn, superb actor though he is, seems off. His performance as the fed-up priest doesn't really connect.

The cheeriest element of Simon Birch is the work of Ian Michael Smith, with his reedy yet forceful voice, his disproportionately large head (he suffers from Morquio's syndrome, which also explains his stature), his crooked front tooth, and his riotous grimaces of dismay. At times the filmmaker seems on the verge of treating Simon like his classmates do, turning him into a toy, a doll. But Smith is more than just physically suited for the part. His comic timing is instinctive and lucid and he doesn't go for cute; he underplays. At its best Simon Birch takes its lead from the young star's performance. Less, in this case, really is more.

Simon Birch.
Directed and written by Mark Steven Johnson. Starring Ian Michael Smith, Joseph Mazzello, Oliver Platt, Ashley Judd, and David Strathairn.

 
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