Simon Birch is a little guy dealing with big issues. Like, why did God put him on this Earth?
Given that he was the smallest baby ever born at Gravestown Memorial Hospital, and that his survival constituted something of a miracle, this is no small issue for Simon. Surely, he reasons, God has a reason for creating someone so special. Surely, Simon is destined for some heroic purpose; if only he knew what it was.
lTC Such is the central mystery behind "Simon Birch," an old-fashioned tearjerker in the best sense of the term -- a shamelessly manipulative heartstring-tugger that defies the viewer to maintain a dry eye. Few will rise to the challenge. Based on a book by John Irving (who was apparently upset enough at liberties taken by the filmmakers that he requested a "suggested by" credit, rather than "based on"), the film is one of those well-told stories that's as irresistible as it is calculated.
Although ostracized for all sorts of reasons -- he's only a couple feet tall, his parents want nothing to do with him, he has this annoying habit of saying exactly what's on his mind -- Simon truly could not care less. He has one true friend in Joe (Joseph Mazzello) and one determined protector in Joe's mom, Rebecca (a particularly luminous Ashley Judd, pulling off the not-inconsiderable trick of appearing both saintly and believable).
Told in flashback by a grown-up Joe (Jim Carrey), "Simon Birch" is an intricate tale of how Simon discovers his destiny (we already know how things are going to end, since the occasion of Joe's recollection is a visit to Simon's grave) and how a simple foul ball changes everything.
As Simon, newcomer Ian Michael Smith is effortlessly engaging, a half-pint-sized philosopher wise beyond his years. Almost as effective is Mazzello as Joe, who has a mystery of his own to solve. The two boys show real chemistry in their scenes together; their friendship never appears forced.
The cynical among us will cry long and loud that "Simon Birch" is awash in cheap sentiment, that it's too obvious in its intent. The question is, done well, what's so wrong with that?
Starring Ian Michael Smith, Joseph Mazzello, Ashley Judd
Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson
Released by Hollywood Pictures
Rated PG (language, emotional elements and an accident scene)
Running time 115 minutes
Sun score ***
Pub Date: 9/11/98