I've yet to decide if a movie is good if it makes you cry. SIMON BIRCH
gave me at least one all-out belly laugh, during the Christmas pageant,
and I've thought for some time that a movie is decent if it makes you
shout in laughter. But crying?
I did not cry during Forrest Gump's monologue directed at Jenny's grave.
It was as though the director were lighting up a CRY NOW sign, in the
same way that television studios light APPLAUSE signs. The movie did
not earn our tears, at least in this scene.
SIMON BIRCH made my lip quiver, and I know my daughter was squeezing my
wife's arm during the scenes that were designed to be gut-wrenching.
Maybe the answer is here, that if a sequence is "designed" or
"engineered" to move us, it does not ring true, and therefore does not
come by our tears honestly. The taint of artifice.
What's likable about SIMON BIRCH? It's a buddy movie, two boys who are
best friends, and it's set in the early 1960s. So there's an aura of
nostalgia, a feeling that the action is ensconced in the lost and better
past. The main plot hovers about the life of Joe Wentworth (Joseph
Mazzello), a 12 year-old who does not know who his father is. For some
time he has been the butt of jokes and scorn, but his mother has not
revealed her lover met years ago on the train. Life-long pal Simon
Birch (Ian Michael Smith), also 12 but with the eccentricities of
someone much older, decides he will help Joe find his father. We are
also informed of Simon's deep-seated belief that God put him here for a
purpose, that because of his faith, Simon would cope with his dwarfism
and overcome people's blindness. Simon would become a hero.
These two early adolescents quickly endear themselves to the viewer.
Although their routine is typical - playing baseball, racing to the
creek for a swim, discussing girls - the script (by Mark Steven Johnson)
has them perform these growing up tasks with quirky originality.
Simon's self-deprecating humor is especially charming. He one-ups Joe
in physical comparisons, though he goes for the smaller instead of the
superior. He accepts playing the Baby Jesus because he is the only
student who will fit in the crib. And he rides, perhaps too cutely, in
a wooden Coca-Cola crate rigged up as a sidecar to Joe's bike. Though
their actions and ideas are occasionally unexplainable, both boys craft
fine performances, causing the audience to feel a range of emotions.
Ashley Judd distinguishes herself as Rebecca Wentworth, Joe's mother.
Although cast as an ideal - the pretty and caring mom - Judd steps
around firmly in the role, making it believable. Part of her importance
is serving as Simon's surrogate mom, one who cares about the boy -
unlike his real parents, who permit Simon to live with them but are
otherwise uninvolved. Judd's acting might be compared to the product
of a writer who works hard for transparent prose, or of a dancer who
works tirelessly for effortless leaps. It's unfortunate that the story
calls for Rebecca to appear only in the first half of the film.
Oliver Platt's role, Ben Goodrich the drama teacher who begins to date
Rebecca, suffers from acute stereotype. But Platt manages to make the
character engaging. Yes, Joe initially resents him, and Ben tries to
win the boy over with goofy gifts and behaviors. But there's a depth
that Ben's character achieves, especially after Rebecca's character
departs from the story. Platt's flat face and nonchalance connects him
with both Joe and Simon, another surrogate, but the audience is also in
on the connection.
Like Platt, David Strathairn is a reliable character actor, but the
script does not fully develop his Reverend Russell. What we get is a
lightweight Dimmesdale from The Scarlet Letter, a stiff and rather
cowardly man whose presence is overshadowed by any character appearing
with him. Other supporting roles are well-cast, including Jan Hooks,
almost unrecognizable, as Miss Leavy, a nasty Sunday school teacher, and
Jim Carrey as the adult Joe Wentworth, whom we see in the framing tale
at start and end.
Director Mark Steven Johnson's main accomplishment is the friendship
among the main characters; these relationships make us care about them.
A secondary success is the comfortable mood set up by the beautiful
camera work, especially in scenes that perfectly evoke fall and winter.
September was a great month in which to release this film: the leaves
and fast-running water throughout the story both add to the imagery and
cause the climax to reverberate all the more.
If I were to rank SIMON BIRCH by percentile, it would place in the 80's
- perhaps a "B" picture, but one that is considerably more than half
successful. As far as causing tears, I mostly agree with a writing
teacher who said a good story is one that makes you laugh or cry. SIMON
BIRCH affected my family and me, and I'll carry some of its images in my
mental storehouse of favorites. Because it meets these criteria, and
because I cared about its characters, SIMON BIRCH is a good film to me.
Copyright © 2000 Mark OHara