Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Simon Birch (1998)

Simon Birch is one of those movies, I think, that can easily be seen as either deeply moving or severely manipulative. I think it is both of those things at different points. To be sure, the film takes several missteps in terms of tone and character. But it also does generate a fair deal of emotion based simply on the story and some terrific acting.

The film tells the story of Simon Birch (Ian Michael Smith), a 12 year-old dwarf growing up in Gravestown, Maine in 1964. Simon, very much a free spirit, is scorned by his parents and frustrates the inhabitants of Gravestown with his outspoken attitude, particularly his belief that God has chosen him to be a hero. However, he forms a friendship with Joe Wentworth (Joseph Mazzello), and Joe's mother Rebecca (Ashley Judd) becomes something of a surrogate mother to Simon. The film is told in flashback, from the point of view of the adult Joe (Jim Carrey), who is visiting Simon's grave and says that Simon is the reason he believes in God.

The search for identity is a major theme in the film. Joe, the illegitimate child of the beautiful Rebecca, is simply trying to figure out who his father is. Simon is trying to discern what God's purpose for him is. These two characters form a bond because they consider themselves outcasts. The script clearly sympathizes with them, but the viewer may not. There is one scene in church where Simon is supposed to come off as intelligent and free-spirited. I just found him obnoxious and arrogant.

Nevertheless, Ian Michael Smith does very good work as Simon. His performance has the humor, charisma and warm-heartedness necessary for the character. Joseph Mazzello is perfectly capable of playing the "normal kid," Joe. But when the script calls for great emotion on his part, his performance leaves something to be desired. Ashley Judd and Oliver Platt deliver solid performances of likable characters.

But in my opinion the standout of the cast is David Strathairn, who plays Reverend Russell. His character is stiff and strict and is thus in direct conflict with Simon for most of the movie. However, it soon becomes apparent that there is more to Russell than meets the eye. Yet even in his early scenes Strathairn never dissolves into caricature. His Russell always seems to be haunted; he is clearly hiding something under his calm and composed facade. What he is hiding becomes all too clear by the end of the film. Strathairn is a celebrated character actor who has gained deserved acclaim in recent years, with his Academy Award-nominated performance in Good Night and Good Luck and his role in The Bourne Ultimatum. This performance shows just how much Strathairn is capable of; he turns a minor supporting role into a full-fledged human being.

Yet despite its strong cast, Simon Birch has some serious script flaws. As mentioned before, the character of Simon does not always come across as likable as he is supposed to be. Also, there is one scene involving a Christmas pageant that dissolves into rather cheap, crude humor. And finally, the script often bashes the viewer over the head, telling them what to feel.

There is one simple but very moving scene that is a happy exception to this tendency. I won't reveal the full details, but suffice to say it occurs after a sudden tragedy that Simon had a big part in. It is late afternoon, the day is getting darker, and Simon is running away. A wide shot shows Simon stopping at the middle of a bridge and looking toward the sky in desperation. He is dwarfed by his surroundings. He yells out to no one in particular: "I'm sorry!" He turns around and repeats it again. The scene is touching because it seems like a genuine outcry of grief, there are very few gimmicks to tell us what to feel. I wish the same could be said for the rest of the movie, which is narrated by Jim Carrey and tends to be sentimental and mushy.

Still, Simon Birch is an effective movie. Despite some script imperfections, it does derive a great deal of emotional power from its touching story and excellent cast.

Verdict: B -
Note: Thanks to Amy LaCombe, one of my Dad's colleagues, for the suggestion to review this movie.

You can see that bridge scene I was talking about here. It takes place from 7:53-8:24.

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