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'Simon' Says Sob

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 1998

  Movie Critic

Simon Birch
Ian Michael Smith is "Simon Birch." (Buena Vista)

Mark Steven Johnson
Ian Michael Smith;
Ashley Judd;
Oliver Platt;
Jan Hooks;
David Strathairn;
Joseph Mazzello
Running Time:
1 hour, 55 minutes
Contains a few naughty names for body parts and a couple of disturbing accidents
Okay, I admit it. The blubbering idiot in the front row at a recent screening of "Simon Birch" was me. No, I did not have something in my eye, and my allergies were not acting up that day. I was sobbing and bobbing like a baby in the back seat of a car-jacked sport utility vehicle on a rocky mountain road. And I was growing increasingly resentful with every maudlin, manipulative minute of it.

The film does not jerk tears as much as it knocks you down and runs away with them. The emotional payday is stolen, not earned, in the Disneyfied, dumbed-down adaptation of John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by writer-director Mark Steven Johnson.

Don't let the previews fool you. This 1960s-era story of a smart-mouthed, bespectacled little-and I mean little-boy (played by the 3-foot-1-inch Ian Michael Smith) is not the lighthearted romp that the cutesy, kooky trailers would have you believe. "That Darn Simon" it ain't. After all, the film is based on a serious and very adult novel by Irving, a writer famous for his skillful blending of broad burlesque with bone-deep tragedy.

The book, however, has undergone a lot more than a mere name change. (Reportedly unhappy with Johnson's bowdlerization of his sprawling and philosophical tome, Irving insisted that the film give his work only a "suggested by," rather than the more embarrassing "based on" credit.)

Gone are extraneous plot lines, numerous minor but entertaining characters, and the inquiries into faith that gave "Owen Meany" its distinctive heft. In truth, the 600-page epic probably would have made a better mini-series than a two-hour movie. What's left is a lightweight reminiscence (narrated in flashback by a token Jim Carrey) about the adolescent friendship between Joe (Joseph Mazzello), the illegitimate son of Rebecca Wenteworth (a solid, luminous Ashley Judd) and the preternaturally tiny and self-proclaimed "instrument of God," Simon Birch. Only cursory treatment is given to the religious ruminations of the book.

Now, I'm the biggest sucker in the world for jug-eared, four-eyed, runty misfits (my sixth-grade class picture will explain why), and just looking at the diminutive Smith, an 11-year-old actor whose growth was stunted by Morquio's syndrome, makes my lower lip go all quivery. However, as undeniably adorable as Simon is, with a voice described as sounding like "strangled mice" and the cuteness of a "baby turtle," here he is less the mythic Christ figure of "Owen Meany" than just a flesh-and-blood kid with a hormone imbalance.

Furthermore, until the film's emotionally wringing conclusion, Simon is not given that much to do, other than chew the fat by the swimmin' hole with Joe, disrupt the school Christmas pageant in slapstick fashion and search for Joe's as yet unidentified father. Tonally, the schizoid story veers from Hallmark Hall of Fame sentimentality to cartoonish exaggeration, with looming close-ups and bizarre angles that only approximate Irving's deft stylistic shifts. Making matters worse is the film's intrusive music, which alternates between period pop hits and a plastic score by Marc Shaiman, which sounds as if it was extruded from a treacly soundtrack machine.

Granting the difficulty of adapting Irving (remember "The Hotel New Hampshire"?) and the limited scope of a feature film, there is still no reason why "Owen Meany" couldn't have been churned into a better product than "Simon Birch."

Given an indelible and original title character prone to uttering such startling uppercase declarations as "I KNOW WHEN I'M GOING TO DIE," a plot of genuine drama and emotional power grappling with issues of life and death, and a uniformly talented cast including Jan Hooks, Oliver Platt and David Strathairn, there's no need to resort to cheap tricks and ham-handed button-pushing.

It's a shame that filmmaker Johnson didn't trust his rich source material enough to just leave it alone.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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