SIMON BIRCH ** 1/2
In older days, when handkerchiefs (small squares of cloth) were in common use, many films where sentiment predominated were called "a two-hankie," "a three-hankie" movie, etc. Today, how many paper tissues will absorb the lacrymosity of "Simon Birch"'s audience is debatable, but use of Kleenex (a registered trademark) will and does occur among several viewers, as does a hush during certain sections of the film.
This isn't all bad. Any picture that touches hearts, even those of salesgirls (a sexist expression from older eras), can nowadays come as a relief from screen brutality, gratuitous action, catastrophes, spectacular special effects and the like, all at the expense of rational thought or natural feelings.
That's the bottom line for "Simon Birch," which comes from a book by John Irving -- said to be his most popular in the U.K.--but do notice the credits above. They state "suggested by the novel," which distances the movie from the printed work far more than " from the novel." Irving himself apparently demanded this, as well as the change in the title.
This is the first film directed by Mark Steven Johnson, a Minnesotan in his early thirties who scripted Grumpy Old Men , Grumpier Old Men, Big Bully, and the yet unreleased Frost (or Jack Frost). The task of writing a scenario from any John Irving book is daunting; translating Irving's mix of fantasy, realism, humor and seriousness, points of view and strategies into a motion picture is no piece of cake. (Two Irving novels have already been made into films, The World According to Garp, and The Hotel New Hampshire. A third, The Cider House Rules, is in pre-production).
Mr. Johnson opted for simplification, modification and selectivity --for example he cut out the original's sections about VietNam. The story that's left is about Simon, who, we learn right from the start, lived from 1952 to 1964 in a small New England town. The son of hardy stock (symbolically, his father is in the granite business), he was the tiniest child ever born in the local hospital. He suffered from a genetic flaw called Morquio's Syndrome which results in dwarfism.
We meet Simon when he is about 12, fully grown at three feet and one inch. He is played by 11-year old sixth-grader Ian Michael Smith (b. Chicago, in May 1987), in his film debut. It is worth quoting the press information which, as a rule, hypes things up, but here is really fascinating. "Ian lives near Chicago with younger brother Brian, his mother , who has an MA in music education and has been a high school band and orchestra director, and his father, a management consultant and former stage actor with a BA in political science and a Master's in foreign language teaching." Ian Smith, a top student who reads a great deal, has many interests, is learning piano and trumpet, etc. etc.
In the film, Simon's diminutive size finds its other extreme in an amazingly precocious, intelligent brain and, to use a much-abused epithet, a truly unique disposition. The boy, fully aware of how he is seen by others, as a freak or a toy, a pet, the object of games at his expense (though not really cruel ones), takes it all in with equanimity, tolerance, humor, even self-mockery. He appears to be philosophical about his unusual physique and, indeed, something of a mystic who believes that God created him for some mysterious special purpose and that He plans for Simon to become a hero some day.
Simon closest friend is a boy his age, his constant companion Joe Wenteworth who towers over him. Joe too is different from the other townspeople. He was born out of wedlock to the beautiful Rebecca, after she had a brief encounter with a stranger. Rebecca, ever charming, poised and good-humored, has never revealed the identity of Joe's father, not even to her mother ( Grandmother Wenteworth), a local and rather patrician widow who allies a mock-serious mien with genuine kindness. When, years ago, Grandma's black maid Hildie lost a leg, the senior Mrs. Wenteworth, having hired a replacement maid, also engaged a second one, to take care of Hildie, who became her friend and companion to both ladies' dying days.
Simon's parents are left unexplored in the movie though it is obvious that they consider the boy as an unwelcome presence. Not much is said about the Wenteworth group, yet is abundantly clear that, with Simon in tow, they constitute a lovable circle for us and a circle of eccentrics by local standards.
I speculate that the change of name from the novel's Owen Meany to Simon Birch is no choice out of a hat. Most probably "Simon" is an ironic joke about "Simple Simon," since this Simon is anything but simple. "Birch" may have to do with the resilience and the bending of the tree. Whatever the symbolism, Simon is a complex creature whose rich language and reactions keep astounding us. His comments and repartee are way beyond his age. For example, he wonders why Rebecca does not reveal to Joe his father's identity: "You're already a bastard. You might as well be an enlightened one."
Simon occasionally may sound like a child, but more often like an adult, whom some might call smart-alecky. In Sunday school class and at church services he is a thorn in the Reverend Russell's flesh as he argues, reasons, contradicts with impeccable logic and a vast knowledge of the Bible. At some point there is even a duel of Biblical quotes between the child and the preacher.
There is also, in the boy, a layer of sexuality that comes out in speech a la John Irving. And, if I remember correctly, at one point Simon mentions to Joe his physical attraction to Rebecca, over and above his love for the young woman whose affection, kindness and understanding of Simon make her his surrogate and (in today's sense) virtual mother.
The story is framed by a serious Jim Carrey, as the now adult Joe, who, without projecting his teeth, narrates the start and the end of the tale -- a tale that I shall not even hint at except to say that Simon's search for his purpose on this earth and Joe's search for his father come to fruition. It's a colorful, original story but it also moves too slowly, even gets sluggish and heavy-handed at times, has unclear elements, lays it on thick --"it" being characterizations, events, a saccharine and/or inappropriate music score, excessive colorfulness, predictable bits, etc. Above all one is being constantly manipulated at the level of emotions. The movie, which is too long, too often pushes pathos into bathos.
Yet, each time I began to twitch and get bored, I reminded myself that, after all, this picture does go against the grain of the no-think cinematic excesses that engulf us and that this is something to be thankful for; and that Ian Michael Smith's extraordinary performance makes up for filmic weaknesses.