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Simon Birch

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Simon Birch

Starring: Ian Michael Smith, Joseph Mazzello
Director: Johnson 43338
Rated: PG
RunTime: 120 Minutes
Release Date: September 1998
Genre: Drama

Review by Greg King
3 stars out of 4

Last year we had two films about killer meteors heading towards earth, and two animated films looking at the secret world inside an ant colony. This year we have two similar films exploring the unique friendship that develops between two twelve year old outcasts, one suffering from genetic birth defects, the other obsessed with his father.

Adapted from the novel A Prayer For Owen Meany, written by John Irving (The World According To Garp, etc), Simon Birch is a touching tale of a childhood friendship that leaves a lasting impression. This moving but overly saccharine story also shares many ideas and themes with the upcoming The Mighty. It's unfortunate that the decidedly inferior Simon Birch is being released locally before that far more powerful, inspiring and genuinely moving film.

Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson (best known for writing the two Grumpy Old Men films) has made numerous changes to Irving's sprawling novel, but has retained its spirit and flavour. Set in 1964, the film focuses on one crucial year in the life of the eponymous Simon and his best friend Joe Wenteworth (Joseph Mazzello, from Jurassic Park, The River Wild, etc).

Pint sized Simon (newcomer Ian Mitchell Smith) was the smallest birth ever recorded at Gravestown's hospital. A small, precocious and slightly deformed kid, he is largely neglected by his apathetic parents and ridiculed by many of the unsympathetic townsfolk. Simon believes that he is God's instrument on this earth, but is impatient about waiting to find out his true purpose. His strong faith leads him to constantly clash with the humourless reverend Russell (David Strathairn), who lacks the traditional Christian values of tolerance, compassion and forgiveness.

The illegitimate Joe doesn't know the identity of his father, and his mother (Ashley Judd) goes to her grave with the secret. Simon becomes involved in helping Joe search to uncover the identity of his father, a quest that will change their lives and have devastating consequences.

As with The Mighty, the two young stars hold their own against the more accomplished adult performers. Both Mazzello and Smith develop a wonderful rapport that enriches the movie, and their engaging performances provide the film with its solid emotional punch. Smith delivers a wonderful performance in a demanding role. He is likely to have a short film career (pardon the pun), because he suffers from a rare degenerative disease, and there probably aren't a lot of roles around for someone with his distinctive stature and physical size. (Smith apparently also auditioned for a very similar role in The Mighty, but eventually lost out to Macaulay Culkin's younger brother Keiran.)

As usual, the very talented Mazzello is excellent, bringing intelligence and a sense of compassion to his role. Jim Carrey appears briefly as the adult Joe, who narrates this quirky but engaging tale. The very busy Oliver Platt delivers a nicely understated but sympathetic performance as Ben, the drama teacher who becomes a surrogate father to the orphaned Joe.

Best known as a screen writer, Johnson makes his directorial debut here, but his direction is occasionally a little flaccid. The film seems overlong, and episodic in nature, and could have been tightened up in a number of areas. Johnson also seems unsure of his target audience. The film includes a number of potentially crowd pleasing elements - there's tragedy, big emotional moments, and lots of comedy, especially during the staging of the town's "first, full contact Christmas Pageant." As the film is set in the early '60's, Johnson also uses the almost obligatory soundtrack to help bring the era to life.

Simon Birch may well be a moving and heart breaking tale of a beautiful friendship between two pre-pubescent boys, but somehow it seems phoney and unnecessarily manipulative when compared to the superior The Mighty. Unfortunately, local audiences will have to wait a couple of months before they can compare the two and make up their own minds about their respective qualities.

Copyright 2000 Greg King

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