Simon Birch
Rating -

 Drama (US); 1998; Rated PG; 113 Minutes

Ian Michael Smith: Simon Birch
Joseph Mazello: Joe Wenteworth
Ashley Judd: Rebecca Wenteworth
Oliver Platt: Ben Goodrich
David Strathairn: Rev. Russel

Produced by John Baldecchi, Roger Birnbaum, Howard Ellis, Billy Higgins and Laurence Mark; Directed and screenwritten by Mark Steven Johnson

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Written by DAVID KEYES

Hollywood has some big problems. They have so many that it's unbelievable.

All you have to do is to look at a bad movie of the past few years (and I know everyone has seen them!). Hollywood and it's film makers, producers, directors, writers, etc. have been in the business since the late 1910s and the early 1920s, and as time passes by, so do the qualities of movies. The resources and limits change just as the time does, and as these times change, film makers often try to correct flaws or problems that audiences felt existed with past failures, or 'flops.' In other words, they try to learn from their mistakes.

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. But recently, it occurred to me that for the past two years or so, it seems like more people just continue their mistakes when they make movies. The results are often terrible experiences, both to audiences and to box office numbers.

Does Hollywood not care about their past mistakes and problems? Do they only care about the profit and promotion they'll get out of it? Are they running out of ideas? There could be several reasons, but no excuses for why Hollywood doesn't improve upon the history film has provided for the past 70 years. Oh yes, history of film making dates WAY back, and if so-called great directors, writers and producers can't even refer back to the past, how do they ever expect to get better in the future?

There's more to the subject than meets the eye, and if you're looking for an example of such lackluster, uninspired attempts at movie making, go see "Simon Birch" and watch the mayhem unleash itself.

As a roller-coaster ride for first-time director/screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson, it's a sad excuse and absolute dead-on example of how little today's moviemakers pay attention to the problems of the past, and the potential flaws of the future if no immediate actions are taken. I fear that if Mr. Johnson doesn't learn from this mistake, he has no business making movies.

But let's hope that's not true, because he has had some worthy efforts in writing. You may recall his name on the writing credits of "Grumpy Old Men," a movie which, I felt, was one of the most funny and inspired films of the 90s. Now this is evidence that Johnson has the right moves to make a movie's material work correctly, so what's with "Simon Birch?"

Maybe it's the pressure of converting a John Irving novel that screwed him up. Irving's "A Prayer For Owen Meany," one of the most acclaimed books in America, is the story of an almost impossible friendship between a young, quirky little midget and a boy who turns out to be the only one in town to appreciate the midget on the inside. The midget is an expressive little guy with a mind of steel, a heart of gold, and, apparently, a mouth of a lady wrestler. He preaches his beliefs and feelings against Sunday school, stage productions, etc., which degrade his respect in town, all while a friendly local boy consistently stays by his side, as a momentum of true friendship.

You must forgive me if I sound inaccurate, but I've never actually read the book myself. I've merely collected portions of how its story is setup, and nothing more. Though, what I've heard, the novel is likely a masterpiece speaking in terms of emotion and struggle, all by John Irving, one of the best writers to ever exist.

But now, there's "Simon Birch," a movie adaptation which is merely "suggested" by Irving's material, rather than based on it. Perhaps, if the book is really as good as everyone says, the "suggested" tag line in the opening credits would have been more appropriate if it had read "ripped off by."

Mark Steven Johnson brings us a similar tale, though with inept and unfocused tastes all set up on its main character. The movie is a somewhat misguided adaptation, focusing on mere moments of the midget's knowledge and wisdom to hold the audience attention. There's absolutely no feeling whatsoever for the little "moppet," as one critic calls him, as he openly admits his beliefs about the Sunday school, among other things which, notably, really "tee" him off.

This is kind of dumb in the way Simon's character is set up. The material's progression to the end with its passion and influence on the audience is somewhat like that of "Forrest Gump" and "Powder," in a matter of speaking. Yet, when all is said and done, these movies are extremely different when it comes to what the audience actually feels for the title character. "Forrest Gump" is a masterpiece of direction and conception, while "Powder" is just okay, even though its title character was at least an influence on feeling something special for those who are different. "Simon Birch" is portrayed like an annoying, overstated little brat who seems to think that he can be a great hero, thus every word he speaks and every action he takes will likely not make the audience feel anything for his character, other than the pity of being outcast. There are about two seconds in the whole movie that have deep feeling in them, and nothing more, other than outspoken opinions.

Simon considers himself to be a hero with the way he remarks and speaks about others, but what's so heroic about it? This is a character who, you can tell, could be an adorable one in the movies, because that's what his personality feels and looks like. When that cute face gets up and remarks something negative to the church, does he think that's going to help his image? Does he think that his beliefs and opinions are actually going to matter to these people? Does he even think about the risk of being outcast by people who completely disagree with him?

For a hero, he's a shallow, disoriented one, somewhat reminiscent of "Bulworth," though not with the bad language.

Movies about these types of characters can work great, to extents, if the characters are portrayed precise to how they develop. If one such person accomplishes tasks that don't fit his general personality, like the one in this movie, then the movie's a mess.

And without a doubt, "Simon Birch" is a mess of film making. The several descriptions I have left you with in this review may not necessarily influence a decision for you to decide if you should see the movie or not, but that's the way I must leave it. If you can't quite picture what I'm trying to say with "Simon Birch," than why even consider seeing it?

1998, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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