Courtesy Photo
115 minutes | Rated: PG
Opened: Friday, September 11, 1998
Written & directed by Mark Steven Johnson

Starring Joseph Mazzello, Ian Micheal Smith, Ashley Judd, Oliver Platt, David Strathaim & Jan Hooks

This film got a dishonorable mention on the Worst of 1998 list.


With the exception of Ashley Judd's wonderful performance, this sap-fest plays like a bad TV movie anyway, so I can't imagine watching it on the small screen could make it any worse.

Family picture a cheap heart-tugging cliche parade of canned emotions

Based very, very loosely on John Irving's philosophical- emotional- political novel "A Prayer for Owen Meany," about a dwarfed 12-year-old boy with an unexplained spiritual intuitiveness, the movie "Simon Birch" has its heart in the right place.

Credited as being only "inspired by" Irving's book, the picture is an emotionally complex and lightly comedic drama about the neglected boy's relationship with his best friend, thick with theological overtones and blanketed by a feel-good message.

Set in small town, USA during the late 1960s, "Simon Birch" stars Joseph Mazzello ("Star Kid," "Jurassic Park") as Joe, the illegitimate son of Rebecca Wentworth (Ashley Judd) and unknown parties. He is driven by an obsession with discovering the identity of his father, who Rebecca refuses to name.

Ian Michael Smith, a cute kid with a growth disorder (he's about three feet tall), plays Joe's best friend Simon, a philosophical Tiny Tim character with a defensive dry wit that often gets him into trouble with judgmental adults -- especially his edgy Sunday school teacher (Jan Hooks). He's convinced that he's destined to be an unlikely hero, an instrument of God for some purpose not yet revealed to him, and he's none to shy about saying so.

But after setting up a cornucopia of uncommon circumstances, writer (of both "Grumpy Old Men" movies) and first-time director Mark Steven Johnson, apparently overwhelmed by a manifold narrative that was too much for him, turns his movie into the cheapest kind of heart-tugging cliche parade by packing it air-tight with the kind of canned emotions and inane symbolism usually reserved for period romance mini-series.

Full of piano poignancy, chirping birds, leaves floating on gentle streams, death bed pledges, miracle heroism and trite dialogue ("I want you to tell me God has a plan for me!" Boo-hoo, sniffle...), the layered story exploring themes of faith and friendship is ruined by its pre-fabricated feel, despite a great effort by a talented cast.

The always splendid Ashley Judd radiates virtue as Rebecca, a perfect mother with enough love to treat the neglected Simon as a second son, although she is shunned by much of the conservative community for being unwed and declining to name Joe's pop.

Oliver Platt ("Bulworth," "Dr. Dolittle") plays Rebecca's latest suitor, who befriends the reluctant boys and becomes a father figure.

Mazzello and Smith are both a little under-rehearsed but show an uncanny range of emotion for actors their age.

When it's not busying itself with fortune cookie philosophy ("Time is a monster than cannot be reasoned with."), the plot effectively and subtly explores theological territory while attaching the audience to these characters with intricate and introspective relationships.

But even though the characters endear, the film quickly becomes an eye-rolling affair after an accidental death involving by a baseball hit during a Little League game. This leads to lots of talk of "God's plan," a hiccup in the boys' friendship and a determined search by Joe for his father, the end result of which is appallingly handled. (Suffice to say it involves someone who certainly has no business impregnating teenage girls, a fact that the film completely ignores).

As it wears on, "Simon Birch" takes on the flavor of a blue light special "Forrest Gump," and loses all its mystique to store-bought heroism, convenient conclusions and tired cliches. One of the last shots in the film is of a peaceful doe standing in a forest, for cryin' out loud.

Coincidentally, another movie about a kid with the same physical disorder is opening next month. Entitled "The Mighty," it plays like an intelligent after school special, but it trounces "Birch" in emotional authenticity, originality and allure.

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