Film Reviews

Little Big Man

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 '60s into a small-town coming-of-age story covering one year; additionally, he altered the title character's climactic Vietnam-era act of bravery to fit a mid-'60s New England setting.

Johnson also changed the title character's name (Owen Meany has become Simon Birch), as well as the names of the other characters, 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 to be adapted, and admirers of the novel will probably be grateful; it feels a bit less like Owen Meany has been appropriated and downgraded.

He has, of course. The film is a feeble shadow of a book that won over even those of us who are no special fans of Irving -- it's probably his funniest, least self-conscious work. It need hardly be said that Johnson, who wrote the two Grumpy Old Men films, didn't create a cinematic equivalent for Irving's deadpan, sweetly hilarious narrative. But if you can set aside comparison -- that's 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 Gumpian 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. The 12-year-old Joe is played by Joseph Mazzello, the sensitive T-Rex bait in Jurassic Park, while the diminutive Simon is played by 11-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's fated 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 are left squirming by Simon's fervor; as old-school Protestants, they're accustomed to an abstract, genteel, impersonal faith. But Joe and his saintly, lushly beautiful single mother (Ashley Judd) aren't uncomfortable with Simon's eccentricities. Forsaken by his own parents, who are disappointed by his size, Simon has become their adoptive brother and son, respectively.

Out of this basic situation, the film bounces lazily among several strands: Joe's curiosity about his father's identity, which his mother has kept secret from him; 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 the 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 as corny and heavy as the comedy is, I was glad there was so much -- it's far better than the earnestly noncomic side of the film.

A first-rate cast helps keep things 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 here; his performance as the fed-up priest doesn't really connect with us.

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 -- his crooked front tooth, and his riotous grimaces of dismay. At times the filmmaker seems on the verge of treating Simon like his classmates in the film 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; instead, he underplays. At its best, Simon Birch takes its lead from its young star's performance: Less, in this case, really is more.

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

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Mark V. Moorhead