The advance word on "Simon Birch," debut director Mark Steven Johnson's adaptation of John Irving's "A Prayer For Owen Meany," was unsettling, to say the least. Johnson had reduced the Dickensian sweep of the beloved best-seller about love, loss, war and destiny to a single year in the life of its diminutive hero. Irving, reportedly worried about incensing fans of the novel, denied the filmmakers permission to use its title or character names.
The result is a tale of friendship, heroism and forgiveness that's more straightforward and less quirky than the big-screen translations of Irving's "The World According to Garp" and "The Hotel New Hampshire." "Simon Birch" is a sticky sweet confection without the comic edge and rich, dark complexity of its predecessors.
Ian Michael Smith, an 11-year-old afflicted with dwarfism, looks the part of the boy described by Irving. Smith, in an uneven performance that pushes the audience's emotional buttons, is a faith-preaching firecracker, heavily burdened with the knowledge of his fate as an instrument of God. "As vividly as any story in the Bible, Simon showed us what a martyr was," childhood pal Joe Wenteworth (Jim Carrey) says at Simon's grave in the film's opening sequence. "Even miracles can't go on forever."
Simon and young Joe (Joseph Mazzello) spend their time running around their quaint New England town. The inseparable pals attend church with Joe's mom (Ashley Judd), a vivacious beauty who has never revealed the identity of her son's father. An uptight Sunday school teacher (Jan Hooks) is quick to point out that her pint-sized student doesn't fit in. The apparently faithless pastor (David Strathairn) is stumped by Simon's precocious spirituality and irked at the riotous havoc he's wreaked on the church's Christmas pageant.
But fate has assigned a significant role to Simon. He experiences the freak-accident death of a mentor, helps Joe find his father, and receives encouragement from a sympathetic adult, Ben (Oliver Platt). Most importantly, he makes a dramatic rescue during a nearly fatal school-bus accident.
Events are wrapped up a bit too neatly, and potent plot turns don't add up to anything greater than the sum of the movie's routinely assembled parts. "Simon Birch" is a modest effort, glossy where it might have been gritty and likable enough -- but hardly revelatory.