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Salt Lake City Weekly Owen Meany He Isn't

'Simon Birch', based on John Irving's novel, oversimplifies a rich story.

By Mary Dickson

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  A Prayer for Owen Meany is my favorite John Irving novel. Rendered like a 19th century Dickensian work, its cast of richly developed characters and its complex story are both comic and heartbreaking. The vivid narrative and original storytelling make it an unforgettable book. So, when I heard that a film adaptation had finally been made, I was delighted. But as the opening credits roll, it's apparent that Irving has distanced himself from this telling. And after seeing the film, it's no wonder.

Screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson (Grumpy Old Men) was so moved by Irving's book that he vowed to make it the first film he directed. His intentions were good, but the screenwriter-turned-director takes A Prayer for Owen Meany and turns it into a sentimental children's movie.

Irving himself had attempted to write a screenplay of his book, but abandoned the idea.

Though Johnson keeps many of the book's details in tact, he fails to capture its exhilarating scope and its lavish meditation on predestination. In fairness, Johnson had to condense a story that spanned a lifetime (the book takes the two friends up to the Viet Nam War) so that it would fit a 110 minute running time. His version concentrates on the boys at age 12 over the course of one year. Unfortunately, his abridgement meant oversimplifying the story and characters. But then the credits say the film was only "suggested by the book."

Because he couldn't tell the whole story and had to make some changes, Johnson also changes the title and the title character's name to Simon Birch. Simon is the "peculiar little disappointment" born to the owner of a Maine granite company. He was the smallest delivery ever recorded in his town, proclaimed by doctors to be a miracle, but his parents choose to ignore their son, the dwarf with a peculiar voice.

Convinced he is indeed a miracle, Simon is sure God has a plan for him. Ian Michael Smith, an 11-year-old, three-foot-one-inch boy with Morquio's syndrome from Chicago makes his film debut as Simon, bringing a straightforward truthfulness to the pivotal role. Joe Mazzello plays his protective best friend, Joe Wentworth. Though they don't get top billing, they're the two stars of the show.

Ashley Judd plays Mrs. Wentworth, a shining Donna Reed beacon of motherhood who treats the adoring Simon like her own child. She's beautiful, she's busty, and best of all, she pays attention to him. No wonder he's goo-goo eyed over her. Mrs. Wentworth has never had a husband, which means Joe has never had a father. This becomes a source of conflict for Joe, prompting his major quest. He is searching not just for his father, but for himself.

Oliver Platt, who's showing up a lot lately in character roles, plays Mrs. Wentworth's latest suitor, Ben, an unconventional drama teacher whose gift to Joe is a stuffed armadillo. The big-hearted Ben is good with kids and to little Simon Birch he may be the man God sent to be Joe's father. For Simon, you see, everything is part of God's plan. He has a boundless faith that confounds even the town's most faithful.

David Straitharn plays the straight-laced reverend of this scenic Maine village (which is actually the picturesque fishing village of Lunenberg in Nova Scotia). The reverend, who often butts heads with the questioning Simon, is bent on keeping him in line. Simon stands on the pew during a church service and publicly challenges the reverend, who finds his arguments about faith particularly trying. The truth is he envies the strange child's unshakable faith.

Talented comedian Jan Hooks — who could forget her Saturday Night Live repertory of characters? — steals many a scene with her hilarious performance as the tyrannical Sunday School teacher, Miss Leavy, who is infatuated with the reverend and exasperated by the odd boy who believes he's God's instrument. "They don't belong here," she says of his neglectful parents, "and neither do you."

But Simon doesn't care what other people think; his own faith is his driving force. Devoted to Joe, he spends his days riding sidecar on Joe's bike and playing lazy afternoon baseball. Simon finally gets his first hit — a high foul ball that has tragic consequences. If you've read the book, you'll already know who gets hit in the head. Played out in slow motion, you'll also know where the ball is headed long before it makes its strike. The tragedy unites Joe and Simon in their individual quests: Joe wants to find his father, Simon to find his destiny.

When Simon finally finds that purpose, in a manufactured scene that Johnson seems to have lifted from the icy waters of The Sweet Hereafter, we know precisely what's coming. Simon will sacrifice his life and become the hero. It's not so much predestination as predictable writing, and the execution is more maudlin than genuinely touching.

Johnson had such rich material to use that his adaptation of it is especially disappointing. He also had a good cast, though he doesn't quite know how to use them to best advantage. Instead of fleshing out their characters, he gives us caricatures. They're not quirky, just quaint with a capital Q, which is pretty much the tone of the film.

It's cute, until it gets lost in its own sentimentality, which isn't helped at all by Mark Shaiman's cloyingly saccharine soundtrack. The self-consciously heavy-handed score completely ruins whatever legitimate emotion Johnson may have achieved. When the mood is sad, we get soaring strings and pianos. When the film's feeling wacky, we get a little wacky tuba music, just in case we can't tell that the mood has shifted. It's all so obvious, it's laughable.

While it will disappoint anyone who loved the book, it makes for a fairly good children's film with a nice moral. Size doesn't matter; anyone can be a hero. And nothing is more precious than the persistence of friendship.

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