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Memory Plays

John Irving's 1989 bestseller, A Prayer for Owen Meany, is a coming-of-age saga set during the period of the war in Vietnam. Irving examines big issues of God, country, and personal responsibility from the perspective of Owen Meany, whose outsider position—he's less than four feet tall—fuels his intensely personal quest for meaning. Owen Meany never settles for a received idea, whether from church or state, left or right.

With typical Hollywood antipathy toward politics and history, Simon Birch—the film "suggested" by the novel Irving sold to Disney—expunges Vietnam from the narrative. (After reading the screen adaptation, Irving refused to allow his hero's name to be used in the film.) Director Mark Steven Johnson, who also scripted, sets Simon Birch in generic small-town U.S.A. at some vague time in the past. We know it's the past because the film opens with Jim Carrey, who plays Simon's best friend Joe now grown up, musing at Simon's grave: "I am doomed to remember a boy with a cracked voice... because he's the reason I believe in God." (I guess Irving had no choice, since he pocketed Disney's money, but to let them use a couple of his good lines.) After that we're in glowingly lit flashback. It's Gump-a-la-la-Land—or so the folk at Disney's Hollywood Pictures must have hoped.

Details

The Battle of Chile, Part 2 and Chile, Obstinate Memory
Directed by Patricio GuzmŠn
At Film Forum
Through September 22

Simon Birch
Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson
A Hollywood Pictures release
Opens September 11

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That Simon Birch is not as maudlin as it might have been is largely due to the intensely thoughtful, prickly performance of 11-year-old Ian Michael Smith, who plays Simon. Smith has Morquio syndrome, an enzyme-deficiency disease that causes dwarfism along with many painful bodily disorders. But it's not Smith's appearance that makes him such a compelling screen presence. It's his awareness of the split between his mind and his body and his ability to transcend his limitations by moving the film into a space that's energized more by brain power than physicality.

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