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Film review: 'Simon Birch'

31 August 1998 | The Hollywood Reporter | See recent The Hollywood Reporter news »

Suggested by -- as opposed to based on -- "A Prayer for Owen Meany", Mark Steven Johnson's "Simon Birch" is a sincere if somewhat treacly rendering of the John Irving novel.

In condensing the material, Johnson has smoothed over most of the quirky Irving edges, leaving precious little to keep the sentimental element in check.

But while heartstrings get yanked with regularity, Johnson's assured first-feature direction and uniformly strong cast make it palatable. Good word-of-mouth could help overcome the lack of big names (unless you count Jim Carrey's straight narration and bookend screen appearances) and give little "Simon" a modest boxoffice boost.

Impressive 3-foot-1, 11-year-old newcomer Ian Michael Smith plays the colorful title character -- the smallest child born at fictional Gravestown Memorial Hospital -- who grew up, in a manner of speaking, to become an outspoken troublemaker with an old soul and a funny voice.

Basically ignored by his parents, Simon usually hangs around his best friend Joe Joseph Mazzello), born out of wedlock to a pretty, perky mother (Ashley Judd) and an unknown father.

But the boys' more or less idyllic childhood receives a rude awakening when a towering foul ball hit by Simon During an afternoon baseball game meets with tragic results and the secret identity of Joe's dad becomes a pressing concern.

Meanwhile, Simon, who has always believed himself an instrument of God, is given an opportunity to put destiny to the test when a wayward busload of school children (shades of "The Sweet Hereafter") plunges into icy waters.

In addition to Smith's casting-agent's-dream of a performance, the picture benefits greatly from Mazzello's strong, sensitive turn, while the always-effective Judd is cast perfectly as Joe's dream of a mom. Providing sturdy support are Oliver Platt as Judd's kindly beau, David Strathairn as a stiff reverend who manages to let Simon's theological outbursts get under his skin, Dana Ivey as Joe's stern grandmother and Jan Hooks as a frazzled, chain-smoking Sunday school teacher.

Carrey -- obviously recruited to lend the little film some "Truman Show"-sized significance -- appears only briefly at the beginning and end while biding time in between providing sporadic, largely unnecessary narration.

While the script is not without charm and humor, there is an inescapable episodic feel to the period piece, no doubt a result of trying to cut the Irving book to a feature-length serving.

But it all certainly looks great. The extensive Canadian backdrops are basked in warm golden hues thanks to cinematographer Aaron E. Schneider, who neatly captures the story's fable-like aspects. David Chapman's small-town '60s production design and the costumes credited to Betsy Heimann and Abram Waterhouse are also right on the money, while Marc Shaiman's score sounds appropriately wide-eyed.

In a final bid to lure the "Phenomenon" crowd, Babyface wrote and performs the pining end-title track, "You Were There". Guess Eric Clapton was busy.

SIMON BIRCH

Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Buena Vista/Hollywood Pictures presents in association with Caravan Pictures

a Roger Birnbaum and Laurence Mark production

A Mark Steven Johnson film

Director-screenwriter: Mark Steven Johnson

Suggested by the novel "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by: John Irving

Producers: Laurence Mark and Roger Birnbaum

Executive producer: John Baldecchi

Director of photography: Aaron E. Schneider

Production designer: David Chapman

Editor: David Finfer

Costume designers: Betsy Heimann,

Abram Waterhouse

Music: Marc Shaiman

Casting: Mary Gail Artz and Barbara Cohen

Color/stereo

Cast:

Simon Birch: Ian Michael Smith

Joe Wenteworth: Joseph Mazzello

Rebecca Wenteworth: Ashley Judd

Ben Goodrich: Oliver Platt

Rev. Russell: David Strathairn

Miss Leavey: Jan Hooks

Grandmother Wenteworth: Dana Ivey

Hildie Grove: Beatrice Winde

Running time -- 110 minutes

MPAA rating: PG

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