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IN SHORT: Sweet and touching but not mawkish. A good movie for us grownups.
This year in particular, as the Oscar® race kicks in, you'll see similarly themed movies hitting within weeks of each other. The critics will remind you that there were three flicks before Big took the cake a number of years back. Simon Birch is the first of two similarly themes stories of two boys; one is physically, um, challenged. The other is emotionally scuffed. Both live in a small town in the early 1960s.
Simon Birch (Ian Michael Smith), eight or so years old, is the smallest person in Gravestown. No bigger than a human palm when he was born, he is a "freak" only in size. His intellect is sharp; his humor is even sharper, and he's just as interested in girls as his friend Joe is. Simon also carries the emotional baggage that he knows he is viewed as a freak. It is only a deep seated faith in God, and the "plan" he believes God has in store for him, that keeps his hopes up. As you meet Simon, his dialog will throw you for a loop. It's funny and touching to see and hear adult thoughts coming out of a body barely two feet high, with a voice that sounds, as one character puts it, "like strangled mice". That fun lasts about thirty five minutes...
Joe (Joseph Mazzello) is 12 years old. Rebecca, his mom (Ashley Judd, looking amazingly like Annette Funicello) got pregnant as a senior in high school, and never revealed the identity of the father. Outcast as a bastard by the moralistic conservatives of the town, he and Simon become best friends. Joe's mom becomes the mother that Simon never had ('cuz Simon's parents neglect him) and brings into their circle a new suitor, Ben Goodrich (Oliver Platt). For Joe, the potential for a normal life lasts a very short time...
Simon's attempts to act like a normal kid, playing on the Little League team, bear fatal results and the boy's lives, indeed the lives of the entire town, are changed forever. From here on in Simon Birch is a story of loss and discovery, of reconciliation and redemption. It is a damn good one, too.
Simon Birch is a small story about small boys in a small town, but the heart is big and the sniffles were loud as the flick played out. Joe's determination to find his true father leads to a major surprise. Simon's faith that he is "God's Instrument" leads to a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy. Instrumental in all this are the religious leaders of the community, Reverend Russell (David Strathairn), with whom Simon plays "dueling Bible verses," and the all to repressed old maid Sunday school teacher, played by Jan Hooks.
Lest you get the wrong idea, this is not a "heavy" flick. There is no overpowering sermonizing or moralizing, despite the presence of the Church at the center of the town's activities. It is funny and touching and all the characters are clear as day. Unlike other adaptations of John Irving's novels, just taking a slice of the "A Prayer For Owen Meany" novel (rather than trying to chomp down on the entire pie, as in adaptations of "The World According to Garp" and "The Hotel New Hampshire") works brilliantly. Any grownup who has been touched by the parental urge cannot be unmoved by this flick ... yeah, technically you could call it a chick flick, but there's enough guy stuff to keep us mushy old guys centered.
You'll remember Ian Michael Smith because of how he looks. You'll feel for him because of how he acts his role. All the other characters are equally good, though the most surprising role goes to Oliver Platt who, for once, does not play the pasty, self-absorbed loser that he tends to. Oliver Platt as a nice guy, who would've thunk it.
One last thing: Though no big deal is made of it, the entire story is narrated in flashback by a 30-years older Joe, who as a kid demanded proof of God and learned faith of the Same from his friend. Appropriately enough, the actor who takes this cameo part has the initials JC, and his fine and subtle appearance cannot help but keep memories of an earlier appearance in The Truman Show on the minds of Academy balloteers.
As for the kidlets? Hey guys, remember when you had to drag your girlfriend kicking and screaming in to see Blade? It's payback time. Bring a box of Kleenex. You won't be sorry.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Simon Birch, he would have paid...
Damn thing made me sniffle. I hate that.
Were we not facing the inevitable overkill competition for Oscar nominations, Simon Birch would probably have shown up closer to the Christmas season, for its message is a good one. I suspect that, once this works its way down into TV-land, you'll be seeing this flick every holiday season.
We'll talk about The Mighty, another handicapped younger/ emotional scarred elder kid story next month.
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