Originally written for The Occidental.
Simon Birch was the smallest delivery ever recorded in the history of the Gravestown memorial hospital. The doctors were amazed when he survived his first months, and proclaimed him a miracle — something Simon is quick to remind anyone who forgets. Simon Birch> is the story of one year in his life, and tells a tale of humor, sadness, and faith, while asking viewers to look at their own ideas about life.
Simon Birch’s one weakness is a bit of predictability; but since Simon firmly believes that God made him small for a reason, and has a plan for everyone’s life, that makes a certain amount of sense. The story meanders around how people react to Simon’s size and his best friend Joe’s illegitimacy. Joe’s mother, Rebecca (Ashley Judd, Kiss the Girls), never married Joe’s father, and in fact refuses even to reveal his identity. Simon Birch is a story of different quests — Simon’s, for his destiny; Joe’s, for his father. Along the way, we meet other inhabitants of Gravestown: Reverend Russell (David Strathairn, LA Confidential), who is constantly plagued by Simon’s unshakable and outspoken faith; Ben Goodrich (Oliver Platt, Bulworth), whose involvement with Rebecca weaves his life in with the boys’; and Miss Leavey (Jan Hooks, “Saturday Night Live”), the boys’ beleaguered Sunday-school teacher.
The entire cast of Simon Birch is amazing. Ian Michael Smith is a newcomer to the silver screen, but acts like a veteran. Simon is a character at once very complex and amazingly simple, but Simon handles his intricacies with a natural feel that lets us forget he’s acting. More importantly, he makes Simon real enough that we soon forget his small size and focus on him as a person. Joseph Mazzello is likewise wonderful; those who remember him in Jurassic Park, forget that annoying little kid and get ready for Joe Wenteworth. Joe is Simon’s compliment in every way: where Simon has faith, Joe doubts; where Simon is an optimist, Joe is cynical. Mazzello manages to hold his own on screen, and his Joe is as much a living, breathing kid as Smith’s Simon is.
The adults are just as wonderful as the youngsters. Ashley Judd is not only very beautiful, but very believable as Rebecca — one of the only adults in Gravestown who thinks Simon is a wonderful kid. Her buoyant performance is a ray of light in the film, and she makes us believe that the young beauty is not only Joe’s mother, but the woman who weathered a small-town scandal to bear her child out of wedlock. Oliver Platt has a strong track record, ranging from a coke-addled spin doctor in Bulworth to a jealous poet in Dangerous Beauty. David Strathairn is the sort of actor you know you’ve seen somewhere but can’t quite place — he slips so completely into his characters that he is different in every film. His performance as Reverend Russell is layered, and as the film progresses, we learn that his exasperation with Simon and Joe stems from more than just the boy’s antics. Strathairn takes a role which could easily have been a one-note character and turns him into a complex man we can sympathize with, even as he chastises the heroes. Ben Goodrich is about as far from those two as you can get, and although he doesn’t spend much time on-screen, but Platt makes him memorable. Ben’s easygoing nature hides a calm core of steel and a miraculous way with kids, and Platt uses a less-is-more technique to let the character creep up on us.
So, I hear my faithful readers cry, what is the bottom line? If you like films likeAs Good as it Gets, which take life and show it to you in all its laughter and tears, you’ll love Simon Birch. But if you want action and gore, go check out Blade.