September 18, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

If I didn’t leak a tear at Simon Birch, I had the awful feeling that Simon himself would step off the screen, Purple Rose of Cairo style, and wave onions near my eyeballs until they watered. This truncated adaptation of a portion of John Irving’s 1989 best-seller, A Prayer for Owen Meany, was written and directed in a labor of sticky love by Mark Steven Johnson (working with a far younger troupe than in Grumpy and Grumpier Old Men). And it allows for little of the dark and funny in Irving’s picaresque morality fable. No room! Not with the buckets of bathos thrown our way, substituting for mass-market spiritual uplift!

Birch originally Meany — is a dwarf child living in a scenic 1950s New Hampshire town who sees himself as an instrument of God. (It gives nothing away to say that he also accidentally kills his best friend’s mother with a baseball.) On the page, the tiny, Christ-like savior speaks in a distinctively ”strangled, emphatic, falsetto” voice, his dialogue rendered in capital letters. On screen, played by 37-inch Ian Michael Smith, an 11-year-old dwarf, Simon just…speaks, and that’s quite enough: The appearance of this reasonably effective novice actor, the very concreteness of his arresting physical presence, gets in the way of an easy embrace of fantasy. What was once a collusion between the author and the reader’s imagination — here’s a fantastical human being, touched by the divine — becomes a thick-witted lesson in differently-abledness, and how some of the most special people on earth come in most unusual forms, etc. (One of their jobs: saving able-bodied earthlings from catastrophe.)

Feh. (Or as Meany would screech, FEH.) Cinematographer Aaron E. Schneider (Kiss the Girls) ladles on halo-golden light. Versatile score composer Marc Shaiman pays out schmaltz music by the yard. Attractive actors turn in earnest performances, among them Joseph Mazzello (blessedly natural) as Simon’s best friend Joe,

Ashley Judd as Joe’s ideal mom, Oliver Platt as her empathetic beau, David Strathairn as a minister not in the closest of contact with the Almighty, and Jim Carrey, super-sincere, as the adult Joe, who narrates. The eyes well. But the heart — ah, the heart remains troubled. C-

type
Movie
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director
Mark Steven Johnson
Cast
Ian Michael Smith,
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