Volume 92, Issue 8
Wednesday, September 16, 1998
wheeling and dealing
|ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Simon says this film is fluff
By Caitlin Murphy
Transforming a literary work from its text form into moving images and sounds is always difficult task. It's even more difficult to do it well.
Suggested by the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, Simon Birch is the story of a tiny boy with enormous vision. Simon is born so small that he is given little chance to survive, yet miraculously he lives to 12 years old, growing to be only a few feet tall. He is taunted by adults and children alike as a freak and rejected by his own family. The only acceptance Simon enjoys is from his best friend Joe and Joe's angelic mother (portrayed by Ashley Judd who treats him as one of her own.
Simon (Ian Michael Smith) insistently believes he is God's instrument and will one day be a hero, for which he is, of course, mocked. His prophecy (surprise!) comes true and it is only once Simon has died the celebrated hero's death that he is endeared to the community that so adamantly shamed and rejected him. He is obviously a representative Christ figure in the film.
Simon's death is no surprise as the film begins at his grave. Jim Carrey is Simon's childhood friend, grown-up and provides the flashback narration in Simon Birch. This is his second attempt (the first being The Truman Show) at turning his career from putrid films to supposedly poignant ones.
One of Simon Birch's glaring flaws is that the audience's sympathy is aroused not so much by Simon's alienation and abuse, which are oversimplified anyhow, but because in typical Hollywood fashion, Simon is cutefied at nauseum, thus feeding the audience's false sense of pride for siding with the proverbial underdog. The film also overstuffs its somewhat limp and clichéd theme of childhood friendship and undernourishes the more complicated themes of scapegoating, societal sacrifices and symbolic crucifixions.
There is also a disturbingly exploitative element at play, when an undersized actor is used to propagate idealistic themes of equality and acceptance by the Hollywood system. This establishment is famously known to praise conformity, celebrated ideals and adhere to constructed norms, meaning Ian Michael Smith will never get another role in such a capacity. It is thus impossible not to feel at least somewhat uneasy in our encouraged adoration of this little "doll" (as he is called throughout the film).
The film's adaptation of Irving's novel juxtaposes the written word's dark, disturbing tale of Simon Birch. Perhaps writer/director Mark Steven Johnson would have done better to have taken more than just a "suggestion" from "A Prayer for Owen Meany" and adopted themes of realism instead of opting for idealism.
When the theme song "You Were There" by Babyface started rolling with the credits it neatly summed up the major problem with Simon Birch. A film that could have rigorously interrogated a scope of sophisticated themes has diluted itself down to a "that's what friends are for" cliché.
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