Rated PG - Running time: 1:53 - Released 9/11/98

One of my favorite novels of all time happens to be A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving. Therefore, I must strive to be objective when judging the film version, Simon Birch, directed by Mark Steven Johnson, who also adapted Irving's novel for the screen. Comparing the film to the book would be unfair since the story must be considerably boiled down to be told within two hours. Owen Meany is a rich, complex tale involving morals and religion, which if produced in toto would be 12 hours long. So as a film, Simon Birch hits on the major points made in the novel, and though the story is vastly simplified, it is still quite meaningful and enjoyable.

Simon Birch is a boy born small, with what the narrator refers to as a "wrecked voice." That narrator is Jim Carrey, the adult version of Joe Wenteworth, Simon's boyhood friend. We only see Carrey for a few minutes at the beginning and end of the film, but his voiceovers run throughout, explaining the long story of why Simon is the reason he, Joe, believes in God.

Although 12-year-old Simon (Ian Michael Smith) is constantly made fun of for being physically diminutive, he feels God has a purpose for him to fulfill, that he is "God's instrument." Meanwhile, Joe (Joseph Mazzello) suffers from his own embarassment: He is a bastard, born out of wedlock to his attractive but mysterious mother Rebecca (Ashley Judd). No one but Rebecca knows who Joe's father was, and she isn't telling. When she brings home an affable boyfriend named Ben Goodrich (Oliver Platt), Joe is unimpressed, but Simon likes him. Simon's parents never regarded him as anything other than a freak and a bother, so he knows the value of an adult who respects children as people. This is why he loves Rebecca, although he admits he also likes her breasts.

When a freak accident takes Rebecca's life, Joe becomes obsessed with knowing the identity of his father. He and Simon speculate constantly about which member of the small town population could be the man who impregnated Rebecca all those years ago. The day he finds out is the day that turns his entire life, and his faith, around. And he has Simon Birch to thank for it.

This movie is quirky and unpredictable, with pretty cinema and beautiful music. Johnson's pacing is rather uneven, though, and the objectives of the characters sometimes get bogged down in lengthy plot digressions. The acting on the part of 15-year-old Mazzelo is real and quite touching, and Smith does a fair job in his debut performance, with an awesomely difficult character. It's clear he was chosen for this role more for his physical appearance than his acting talent. Judd is breezy and attractive, and Platt's growing relationship with the boys is sensitive and at the same time strong.

Simon Birch is a touching story, painted beautifully on the silver canvas by cinematographer Aaron E. Schneider. It is not destined to be a box-office smash, but shows off some of the subtler talents of several up-and-coming artists, on both sides of the screen. ****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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