September 1998
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

Simon Says: "Wuv Me!"

My palms are freshly powdered with rosin, I've dug a comfortable groove in the dirt with my cleats, so let me rear up in my shining glass cabana and start heaving menhirs. I dearly love the gutter trash of cinema, those films churned out to fit their particular genre to perfection, as much for the way they follow a cliché-ridden formula as anything else. Exploitation movies are created first and foremost to fill the theater seats and turn a tidy profit. The producers know that the best way to make money is to manufacture a product that is as much like an already successful product as possible (only cheaper). It's true in every genre - from chop-socky to shoot 'em ups, from weepers to potboilers, a strictly and enthusiastically followed ritual is sure to satisfy.

So why is it that I'm bothered by the "family film" genre in particular? The Family Film (or "Yeller", as I like to call them) is just another type of exploitable entertainment, no more or less governed by a checklist of plot points than, say, a movie about a sinking boat or a fast-moving truck full of moonshine. What is it that puts the turd in my tapioca when it comes to The Adventures of Milo and Otis or Ghost Dad?

Let's take the case of the new film Simon Birch into the lab and see if we can come up with some answers. Come on, trust me - it'll be fun. Relax and enjoy it. If things get too crazy, I promise I'll pull out.

The first character we see in the movie is - Jim Carrey! Hey, maybe this won't be so bad. Ssssssmokin'! But it's only a tease: Jimbo's just the narrator, flashing back to 1964 when he was played by Joseph Mazzello, that fresh-faced mini-Tom Hanks we all loved in Star Kid. Joe is Simon's best friend. Simon is a dwarf about two feet tall who talks like Alvin the chipmunk. Simon's played by new discovery Ian Michael Smith, who's really cute. I know this is true because I heard every female in the audience say, "Awwwwww, keee-yooooooooooote!" as soon as he showed up on screen. Ian is actually a very good actor for a beginner - especially since I hear he's really a black woman that plays center for a WNBA team. Seriously, I hope Ian goes on to have his own talk show and win an Oscar for playing Frodo Baggins, but I fear he'll trod the path of tabloid semi-obscurity just like every other Webster.

Naturally, Simon is played up as a loveable misunderstood misfit outsider freak. The other boys tease him and the girls think he's a toy. In baseball games, he's used as automatic walk bait. His own parents just hate him, so Simon has taken refuge with Joe and his family. Joe's also an outcast because he's a bastard. His mother Ashley Judd won't tell anybody who knocked her up, but everybody loves Ashley because she's a saint.

Got the set-up? We're all supposed to love Simon because he's cute, and because he's a little wise-ass, and because he's very clever and spiritual, and for the way he loves that bastard Joe, and because they get into merry scrapes together. We're supposed to love him because he's a real-life freak, which is admirable - not a phony like that E.T. But most of all we're supposed to love him because he's keeee-yoooot.

With our huggable underdogs in place, it's time for tragedy to strike so there'll be a good weepy sad part for the heroes to suffer through. Builds character. Yes, it's time for one of our characters to have a mishap - preferably a most beloved character. Time for the beautiful Ashley Judd to get hit in the head by a foul ball and die beautifully. I was kind of hoping it would be Ashley's doughy boyfriend Oliver Platt that would take the hit, but as Disney knows, nothing beats a dead mother for instant pathos.

I might've bailed at the sad part, but the rest of the movie had plenty of suspense, if only for me. I couldn't wait to find out if it turned out as predictable as I thought.

Item 1: How is Simon going to die? Hey, don't blame me for spoiling it - Jimbo was standing over his grave way back at the start of the picture. Most likely, it'll happen as a result of...

Item 2: How is Simon going to be a hero? He's been saying stuff about how it's God's plan for him to be a hero for the whole movie, so it's gotta happen some time. Most likely, it would involve a hole that's too small for anybody else to crawl through (except you-know-who), but even this movie isn't so completely obvious. It must have something to do with Simon's obsession with holding his breath underwater. This is known in the trade as foreshadowing, but in this case it's more like fore-rubbermalletonthehead-ing. Conveniently, a busload of children comes down an icy road by the river at just the right time. Watch out for Bambi! And lastly...

Item 3: When will Joe find out who his dad is? Yeah, Jimbo spills the beans about that showstopper at the beginning, too, telling us Joe never would've found out without Simon (oddly, he's lying - he finds out without Simon's help). The only question is whether or not the phantom poppa will be the obvious choice - the character with the most reasons to keep it secret. It is.

Simon Birch is adapted from the novel "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving, but they warped the story so much in development that they even changed the main character's name (to protect the innocent, I guess). I didn't read the book, but I suspect it was a lot more original and complex than the movie. The film is so blatantly manipulative that I got cramps in my eye muscles from rolling them too hard. But while I was loosening them up I noticed a funny thing - most of the audience was really caught up in the story, and a lot of tissues and hankies were in use.

Since the target audience for these yellers are kids, and kids haven't seen too many movies yet, the producers must figure they can get away with the lamest shtik. The kids - and their parents, who've been too busy changing diapers to watch movies - eat it up like Orson Welles at an escargot buffet. All I know is that I was the only one who wasn't crying over little Simon's death scene.

That's right, I'm the one who's the problem here. I'm the misfit. I'm the freak.


in the junk drawer:

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