Simon Birch [1998]

This screen adaptation of John Irving's novel A Prayer for Owen Meany was appreciated much more by audiences than by the majority of disapproving critics. Irving's books have fared only moderately well on film, and while The World According to Garp garnered critical praise, The Hotel New Hampshire was waiting in the wings to counteract the fanfare. Simon Birch is one of those nostalgic movies--determined to view the past in rose-colored hues--despite the fact that its protagonist, a dwarf named Simon Birch, is wholeheartedly unsympathetic. The film opens weepily, with Jim Carrey as the adult version of the film's main character and narrator, Joe Wenteworth (played as a youth by the serious young actor Joseph Mazzello). He's mourning at the grave of his best childhood friend, Simon Birch, with whom he had bonded instantly because both were misfits--one a dwarf, the other illegitimate. The deck is stacked from the beginning, especially when the camera dwells on Joe's luscious mom, Rebecca (Ashley Judd), who refuses to reveal the identity of Joe's father, which in turn urges Simon and Joe to embark on a quest to discover Joe's paternity. In a plot point that resembles The Scarlet Letter, the tide of fate turns on the "immoral" mom just as she's on the verge of finding true love with a decent fellow (played by Oliver Platt). Simon Birch ultimately descends into crudeness, though it asks the audience to continue to engage with its crass lead character. By the end, the film is reduced to drivel, cliché, and melodrama to tug our heartstrings into submission. All the things that should have been the film's focus--guilt, self-loathing, and redemption--remain elusive. --Paula Nechak

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