Simon Birch is a film loosely based on John Irving’s novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Names, dates, plot elements and places have been changed…so fans of the books should be wary going in. It may not be a faithful adaptation, but with an open mind, it’s a charming little film in its own right.
The titular character is a diminutive twelve-year-old in a small Maine town during 1964. Despite his small stature, Simon has a big heart. He means to do well, even though he’s constantly getting into trouble. The doctors claimed it was a miracle that he is even alive, so Simon believes God has put him here for a purpose.
His best friend is also the film’s narrator, Joe Wentworth (Joseph Mazzello, and Jim Carrey as an adult). Like Simon, Joe is somewhat of an outcast in the small community. He was born out of wedlock, and his beautiful young mother (Ashley Judd) has steadfastly refused to reveal to anyone the identity of his father. This is a question which haunts Joe day and night, and he has begun his own private search for his dad.
The action all takes place over one fateful year in the lives of Simon and Joe. They have adventures, make new friends (notably Joe’s mom’s new beau, Ben Goodrich (Oliver Platt)), and at least try to stay out of trouble under the watchful eyes of Reverend Russell (David Strathairn) and Miss Leavey (Jan Hooks).
There are times when the film nearly gets bogged down in its own sweetness, but it is usually saved by some smart dialogue and good delivery by Ian Michael Smith. Both he and Joseph Mazzello quickly establish an easy, believable rapport that is crucial for the success of the film. The two young actors are a credit to the film.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Jim Carrey’s bookending narration. Not only does his small cameo smell of a casting gimmick, but it is unnecessary and actually spoils two crucial plot twists later on in the film.
It may be for that same reason, but several of the “sad” moments in the film are strangely unmoving. The pivotal misuse of foreshadowing undercuts any dramatic tension in these scenes. Moments which are intended to be deeply touching are instead dispassionate.
Still, that’s not to say the film is a failure…far from it. The central story of friendship is strong enough to carry the weight of Simon Birch on its own. Add to that a nice little portrait of small town life in the 60s, and several funny moments, and you’ve got a good little film, just like Simon himself.