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Moriarty trashes SIMON BIRCH and places THE MIGHTY on a pedestal. Where it should be...

Many of you feel that Moriarty is the best writer on the site besides me, and a lot of people feel he's better than me, and me, I love reading his work, especially the quality films he's made. I can tell you that in the great scope of things Moriarty, Hallenbeck and I are all very much alike. We live and breathe film. We dedicate our lives to it as the artform we hold dearest. I had a discussion with Joe, just the other night where he talked about his purpose, what he became a spy for, and soon soon he will realize his dream. Today, Moriarty has written the report he was born to write. It concerns SIMON BIRCH and THE MIGHTY. He despises with every fibre of his being the first film. He begs you to stay away at all costs, and with THE MIGHTY he begs you to see it as often as possible. Until my review of Simon Birch let me say this... it isn't THE MIGHTY. Now it's the evil genius' turn....

"Moriarty" here.

Harry, this is the review that I became a spy to write. I have never felt stronger about a film than I do about this first one. Thanks for giving me a soapbox to use for a moment. Now, having said that, there is only one reason the world still exists today, Harry, and it is because I am slowly calming down. I came very close to just letting my fully Evil Genius rage loose yesterday. You know the collapse of the Russian economy and that whole Wall Street plunge yesterday? Well, you can blame that on Hollywood Pictures and Mark Steven Johnson. I didn't mean to lash out and nearly cripple the world's economy -- I just couldn't help myself. I may be set to rule the world with an iron fist in the near future, but I'm only human. I'm subject to bad moods like anyone else.

To explain myself, I suppose I have to take you back to 1988, late fall. I was a pretty big John Irving fan already. THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP remains one of my favorite novels (and a movie I dig a lot on its own merits and as an adaptation), and I'd read everything else of his as well. There's something about Irving's voice that really got inside me as a writer. I just respond to his particular style of telling a story and crafting a character. So it was with great anticipation that I picked up his (then) new release, A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY.

I bought the book the day it was released, picking it up in the early afternoon. I was in college at the time, and I had finished for the day, so I figured I'd squeeze in a few chapters that night. Instead, I ended up sitting awake until 8:00 AM the next day, when I finished the last page of the novel, tears streaming down my face. Irving literally blew my mind. MEANY is, in my opinion, the finest English-language novel of the 20th Century. It's about everything -- friendship, love, faith, honor, courage, and the power of the individual spirit. My world is richer for having read that book, and I've walked around with my own private OWEN MEANY movie playing ever since in my head. I knew then that the material was essentially unadaptable based on the range of the book (it covers 20 years in the lives of the main characters) and on the unique nature of Owen Meany himself. I liked to try and envision my film version, but I also half-believed that no one, not even I, would be insane enough to try.

Well, flash-forward to last spring, when I learned that Mark Steven Johnson had been signed to write and direct the film version. I was flabbergasted by the announcement because of my familiarity with Johnson's other films. Disney won't be highlighting any of this in their press materials or their ad campaign, so let me just remind everyone who we're dealing with here. This is the mastermind behind Warner Bros.'s stupefyingly popular Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon series, FILTHY OLD MEN, FILTHIER OLD MEN, and the upcoming (and eagerly awaited) FILTHIEST OLD MEN. Just to shake it up a bit, he also wrote the Tom Arnold/Rick Moranis classic BIG BULLY, which bears a stunning resemblance to the OLD MEN series in structure and style. After demonstrating such versatility and sensitivity, Johnson seemed like the perfect choice to adapt an Irving novel, right? NO! OF COURSE NOT! But he'd managed to somehow worm his way into the job anyway.

I'm a reasonable man, Harry, a man of peace. I wanted to call Johnson and say, "I ain't mad atchya." I wanted to wish him well. I decided that I would approach the film with a "guilty until proven innocent" attitude. After all, why wouldn't I want to be able to go see a great version of the book I love? It's happened before -- someone snatches up a property I wish I could do, then turns around and makes the film perfectly. I love when that happens. It saves me the effort.

A couple of months passed and someone mysteriously forwarded me the script. At that point, the film was called ANGELS AND ARMADILLOS, a title that I thought was horrifying. It seemed almost intentionally anticommercial. It took me about a week to work up the nerve to even pick the script up. When I finally did, I read it fast, twice, cover to cover.

And I hated it. I hated it because it completely threw out the shape of the novel for no good reason. I know how to adapt a book. I understand the changes that can occur. I think it's a natural part of the process. But I also believe that you make changes for two reasons: (1) Books are longer than films, and you must compress for maximum onscreen effect and (2) You must make visual and external that which can be verbal and internal in a novel. Other than that, it seems ridiculous to me to change a book dramatically. After all, you bought the novel because you wanted to put it onscreen, right? Isn't that the whole point? Johnson's script didn't seem to have any idea why OWEN MEANY was a great novel. He included a lot of the specific business of the book, but much of it is out of context and pointless. Irving's book is a miracle of construction, with each new piece of information adding to what is eventually a devastating whole. There are some moments of broad, almost surreal comedy that are always (ALWAYS) punctuated by images or lines that remind us of the grave and profound nature of Owen himself and the journey he and his friend John are on. Everything ties together in a way that was startling, fresh, and profound, and all of that was missing from the ending of this script. When I finally set the script down, my head reeled. I knew it wouldn't be the book when I picked it up, but I had never imagined that they might actually trash the novel. All I could hope was that this was an early draft, that someone would come to their senses and stop this mistake from being made.

Around the same time, I watched a taped seminar with John Irving himself that was given at UC Berkely. In it, he was asked about film adaptations of his work. He revealed that he was working on a script for THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, the most directly Dickensian of his books, and that he was a producer on the film, meaning it wouldn't get made until it was the exact film he wanted to make. He said he was taking his time because he believed in the movie, believed it could be something special. By way of contrast, he brought up A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY, which he said he was convinced would never, never work on film. He mentioned that he had sold the rights to Disney for an "indecent" sum of money, and talked about the rights he had retained. "If it's terrible," he said, "I can make them change the name of the film, the names of the characters. Basically, I can make them eliminate any evidence that it was actually based on my book." The audience laughed, Irving laughed, but he went on to explain that he was using Disney. He seemed almost gleeful about taking their money for a property that he said couldn't be turned into a good movie, and still keeping so much control over the end result. Well, it looks like Irving finally exercised that option, because the next thing I know, someone slips me a copy of a movie called A SMALL MIRACLE and tells me to watch it.

I'm going to say right now that either Mark Steven Johnson or his mother is reading this review, you might want to skip down to where I start talking about THE MIGHTY, because I don't want to make you cry.

You still here? What are you, Johnson, a glutton for punishment? You must want me to unload on you. I mean, you had to know you were deeply out of your league when you sat down to adapt the book. I may not like your previous movies, but someone seems to. They make money. You're good at that. You have found your niche. Go do that. But keep your hands off material like OWEN MEANY. The experience of watching this film was like seeing Jim Varney do Hamlet. Johnson's lost, so he falls back on his own worst instincts and on unsubtle borrowing from other films. If there was no STAND BY ME, there would be no SIMON BIRCH. Johnson lifted his aesthetic completely.

The worst part is that he managed to put together a pretty decent cast. In Biazarro world, Ashley Judd, David Strathairn, Oliver Platt, Joe Mazello and Ian Michael Smith all starred in a perfect adaption, the one they are all appropraite for. Unfortunately, we live in this world where they're saddled with a terrible script and a lousy director. Judd, in particular, is exactly who I imagined when I first read the book, even before I knew who she was. She makes the most of her screen time, and leaves a strong impression. Platt is also just about the perfect choice for Dan (or "Ben," as he's called here). The most crucial piece of casting is Simon Birch himself, the Owen Meany character. He is a unique literary creation, the kind of character that really only works on the page. One of the distinct things about him is his voice, which Irving represented on the page in all caps, "SO THAT EVERYTHING OWEN SAYS IN THE BOOK LOOKS LIKE THIS." I've spent 10 years trying to figure out what that voice sounds like. At the UC Berkely lecture, Irving did the voice, and I was amazed how much it sounded like what I'd imagined. The film's narrator makes reference to the "ruined voice" of Simon Birch in his opening monologue, but it seems that Johnson didn't read the script, since he didn't bother doing much of anything to the voice of Simon. Physically, Ian Michael Smith is perfect. He's a 12 year old actor who suffers from Mosquito Syndrome, which is one of many causes of dwarfism. He's remarkably tiny, but possesses a certain presence that belies his age. He could have been remarkable as the young Owen (who eventually ages to his early 20s) in a great adaptation of the book, and I don't want anyone to think my ill will towards this film extends to this actor. Being onscreen for essentially the entire film at the age of 12 is a lot of responsibility, and Smith shoulders it ably.

On the other hand, Mazello stumbles in a fairy big way here. He's let down by the material, sure, but he's also phony through and through. When he made his debut in RADIO FLYER, he was remarkable for his ability to be in touch with a seemingly bottomless wellspring of emotion at command. Now, eight or so years later, he's a polished Hollywood pro, and not a bit of it rings true. In particular, his final scene with Simon is dreadful. I sat there, stone, watching Mazello and the director work as hard as possible to make me cry, and I was embarrassed for them. The dialogue, the overstrident score, and the shameless attempt at manipulation add up to a totally phony catharsis, the kind of moment that kills a climax. The film's other worst feature is the work that was phoned in... I mean, contributed... by Jim Carrey. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a big supporter of Carrey's work. Hell, I was the first person to send you a rave for TRUMAN SHOW. I am a big believer in MAN ON THE MOON, and can't wait to see it. Knowing that, believe me when I say that his work here is the worst of his career. He was in Nova Scotia for a whole two days to shoot the wraparound material, and it feels rushed, phoned in, and lazy. In particular, his last scene with his son is atrocious, heavy-handed and obvious. His voice-over sounds read right off the page, with nothing to distinguish it. This won't count against him, since it's barely even an appearance, but it sure doesn't make the case for him having any dramatic ability.

In the end, I am mystified by anyone recommendation of this film. It's like someone's imitation of what a good film should look like. Johnson undercuts himself every time he turns around. He takes one of the book's most wrenching, horrible moments, also one of the more crucial turning points for Owen as a character, (a church pageant that goes godawfully wrong) and turns it into a boobs-and-barf joke that serves no other purpose in the movie. He always goes for the joke, every time he gets the chance. Even worse, he revinvented the film's ending, creating a bus crash that is absolutely not in the novel. Last year's THE SWEET HEREAFTER burned its school bus crash into my brain, and the clumsy, amateurish approach Johnson takes to the sequence can't possibly survive even a casual comparison.

Harry, if you publish this review on Saturday, there's the distinct chance some people will have a chance to read this review before deciding if they're going to go see tonight's nationwide studio sneak of SIMON BIRCH. AICN Readers, do yourself a favor if that's the case. Run a search on all my reviews from this page, go back, take a look at them. See if you think I'm at least in the ballpark most of the time. If you agree with me or think you can trust me in the slightest, then do yourself the favor of ignoring the hype from reveiwers-for-hire like Jeanne Wolf and Jeffrey Lyons and skip this film. Just don't bother. Save your $7 for THE MIGHTY. This is all of Hollywood's worst impulses, wrapped with a big bow reading, "LOVE ME, ACADEMY" on it. Screw SIMON BIRCH, one of the year's biggest wastes of time and talent.

So, you may ask, what's this THE MIGHTY that you should see instead? Ah, it is a special little gem that deserves all the praise I can heap upon it. Directed by Peter Chelsom, it's another story about two boys and their special friendship. It's also based on a novel. In fact, publisher Scholastic is one of the producers of the film. If this is any indication of how they'll bring material to the screen and what material they'll choose, then they deserve to be a major player in the world of live-action "family" films.

Oh, a family film? I hear you ask. No, thanks. I don't like that sort of thing. Shut up. You didn't let me finish. This is a film like the original THE BLACK STALLION or the French classic THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN. It's stylistically bold, written with real maturity and insight, and it's beautifully performed. It transcends being a film for any particular audience by being a great film that any audience will enjoy.

Chelsom's last film was the fabulous and mostly ignored film FUNNY BONES, which starred Oliver Platt and Jerry Lewis and which introduced Lee Evans, who's on display to such good effect right now in THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY as Tucker. With this picture, he confirms himself as one of the most interesting filmmakers working. Both films have a strong sense of style, but they're nothing alike. Instead, he's let the material dictate his approach both times to dazzling effect. The easiest comparison to this film would be Terry Gilliam's THE FISHER KING, but Chelsom manages to not imitate Terry's style when approaching some similar ideas. He and photographer John de Borman work well together, managing to pitch just the right tone every time they want to change moods. One of the signs of a great director to my mind is control, and Chelsom seems to have it. He knows how to create a real world and a distinct fantasy world both for these characters to live in. He knows how to give these children the right direction they need to feel real, to make us all remember these feelings, these moments.

Max Kane is a big kid, "Godzilla-sized," as he puts it. He's taller than anyone else in the seventh grade, and he's constantly made fun of. For such a big guy, he's surprisingly quiet and shy, to the point of seeming almost mute. He's played by newcomer Elden Henson (who I believe has since changed his name to Elden Ratliff), and he's a talent to watch. The movie lives or dies based on him, and he delivers the goods at every turn. There's an inner life to this character, and we glimpse it in his eyes, in his stance, in the way he carries his shoulders. He's a gifted young performer, and he's given great support by Kieran Culkin as Kevin, also known as "Freak." This is the best performance ever given by someone named Culkin, and it announces Kieran as a real actor. These two create sparks with their friendship. It's understandable, it's real. They're both people we like, and seeing the bond between them grow is one of the film's joys.

Another is its unexpected plot development. It's so easy these days to sit in a theater and figure out what's going to happen in the last 20 minutes of a movie based on what happens in the first 20 minutes. That's not the case here. This film feels organic because it takes time in offering up its pleasures and its hearbreak. It earns everything you feel by carefully working up to it. This friendship is important to us as viewers because we see it bloom. These characters are important to us because they feel like friends.

Sharon Stone, Gillian Anderson, Meat Loaf, James Gandofolini, Harry Dean Stanton and Gena Rowlands all do solid supporting work here, exactly what they're supposed to do, and they weave a wonderful, rich tapestry against which the primary story plays out. When I saw the film, it was primarily temp track stuff from THE NATURAL and others, but I see that the final score will be by Peter Gabriel and Trevor Jones. That's exciting to me. It can only improve what's already close to perfect.

Everything I wanted from an OWEN MEANY adaptation is on display here. This film is heartbreakingly good. It manages to really impart a warm, human message without preaching or getting overly heavy. Culkin's character, who is suffering from a degenerative growth disease that's left him with a sharp, curved spine and bones that don't grow, is never used to try and garner cheap, cloying sentiment. Instead, he's given a real fire that makes us care about his fate. We become invested, and that's what makes it all matter. At no point does Chelsom bash us over the head with what makes the characters special. They carry it all themselves.

The last fifteen minutes of this film left me short for breath. One scene in particular (about the book, for those who have seen it) really caught me off-guard and made me cry. I cried because of all the opportunities the SIMON BIRCH team squandered. I cried because of how right THE MIGHTY team got it. I cried because of how noble the scene is, because of what it celebrates and reveres, and I cried because I had never seen it coming.

If I can encourage even one person to skip SIMON and see THE MIGHTY instead, then every report I've ever sent to AICN will be worthwhile. I'll be delighted to... hey, wait a minute. I just remembered, I'm supposed to be an Evil Genius, and I'm trying to do something good here. I don't know if I'm technically allowed to do anything good. Oh, crap, I think I need to check out my copy of the rule book. I'm sorry, Harry, but I need to run, meaning that it's time, as always, to say...

"Moriarty" out.

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