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Review: 'Simon Birch' heartwarming, funny, touching

Web posted on: Thursday, September 10, 1998 6:04:06 PM

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- Other than brief appearances at the beginning and the end of the film by Jim Carrey, who also does the narration throughout the film, "Simon Birch" doesn't feature any bankable mega-stars. I'm absolutely shocked it ever got made in Hollywood.

But I sure am happy it did. The result is a movie that is unique, original, fresh, touching, funny and intelligent.

Some novels are harder to adapt to film than others. The movie "Simon Birch" has had a long and difficult road from the printed page to the big screen.

In fact, it was changed so much from the original book, "A Prayer For Owen Meany," that "Owen Meany" author John Irving requested that the title character's name be changed. So "Simon Birch" is now billed as "suggested by" rather than "adapted from" its original source material.

But it's important to note that Irving gave his blessing for the project and worked closely with the filmmakers.

Paul's Pix: "Simon Birch"

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Real: 28k or 56k

Theatrical preview: "Simon Birch"

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Clip: "That is enough, Simon"

Video: 3Mb QuickTime movie

Two misfit children make friends

"Simon Birch" is about faith, destiny, and the friendship between two boys who are both social misfits in a small New England town.

As the film opens we're told that Simon Birch was the smallest delivery ever recorded in the history of Gravestown Memorial Hospital. The doctors proclaim him a miracle, a statement that Simon never lets anyone forget. He's also convinced that God, in whom he has great faith, has a special mission for him in life. Somewhere, somehow, he's going to be a hero.

His best friend is a boy named Joe, played with great authority by 14-year-old Joseph Mazzello, who has been acting since the age of five.

Joe, like Simon, is also an outsider. But in his case, it has nothing to do size. He's different because his mother, played by Ashley Judd, refuses to name Joe's father and has raised him out of wedlock, much to the shock of her own mother and the entire town. Judd is an actress who could stand there and read from the phone book and I'd be totally entranced -- but I digress. ...

Seeking different things

Simon's parents basically haven't a clue about what to do with this very small, very outspoken, and very intelligent boy who takes on all comers, including his Sunday School teacher and the reverend at his local church. Thus, it falls on Joe's mother to really guide and more or less raise, Simon.

Both boys have a quest. Simon is determined to find God's plan for him, and Joe simply wants to find his father. Together they seek their dreams.

Rounding out this excellent cast is Jan Hooks ("Saturday Night Live") as the Sunday school teacher who hates kids, but has the hots for the Reverend. The Reverend, who has no idea of how to answer even half of Simon's relentless questions about God and faith, is played by veteran character actor David Strathairn.

And finally, Oliver Platt turns in a wonderfully understated performance in the role of an eccentric but loving teacher who befriends the boys.

Three-foot, one-inch-tall Ian Michael Smith shines in the title role. This is the Chicago native's acting debut, and he's totally believable and truly amazing as Simon Birch.

The biggest hurdle for the filmmakers must have been finding someone small enough to play Simon. Smith was one of the first people they auditioned for the role, but they continued the search with casting calls across the United States and in London. Luckily for Smith, the filmmakers, and the audience, they finally came back to this remarkable 11-year-old boy.

Exceptional debuts abound

This is also an exceptional directorial debut for Mark Steven Johnson, who also wrote the script for "Simon Birch." He's been best known, up to this point, for his screenplays for "Grumpy Old Men" and its sequel "Grumpier Old Men."

In the popular and acclaimed novel, the story begins with the main characters' boyhoods and follows them as they become adults, at which time they get involved in the Vietnam War.

With "Simon Birch," Johnson has taken Irving's novel and kept the spirit of the work while condensing the action down to a 12-month period in the boy's life, the year when they are both 12 years old. Johnson has taken this rather odd subject matter, which could have been grotesque and sappy, and made a work of art which is deeply moving -- and, at the same time, funny.

Granted, "Simon Birch" is blatant in its emotional manipulation, but that's what movies are supposed to do -- look at films like "It's A Wonderful Life" and "ET." Ultimately, this is an inspirational story that will haunt you long after you leave the theater.

"Simon Birch" is rated "PG" with a running time of 110 minutes.

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