The credit reads 'Suggested by the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving,' but it ought to say, 'Transformed from a dark comedy into a would-be cozy, sometimes smutty, smalltown melodrama.' And there is more bad news. Simon Birch packs the dramatic impact of a mayonnaise sandwich on white bread. Written for the screen and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, author of Grumpy Old Men, Simon Birch begins and ends with a visit to the Episcopal church cemetery by the adult Joe Wenteworth (Jim Carrey, wasted in a bland cameo). Wenteworth casually mentions that he will never forget his childhood pal, Simon Birch (Ian Michael Smith), whose hold on Wenteworth's memory may have something to do with the fact that: a) Birch killed Joe's mother; (b) the kid was shorter than a yardstick; (c) they were best friends; and (d) Birch saved a dozen children from drowning. Unfortunately, Smith is as wooden as he is tiny. And he has the warmth of an insurance salesman who just lost his per diem.

Most of the plot revolves around the childhood friendship between the youthful Wenteworth (sympathetically played by Joseph Mazzello) and Birch. The two have equally rough childhoods. Simon's parents treat their undersized boy with exceptional coldness, as if he were a bad mistake, and Joe is stigmatized for being illegitimate. No one knows who Joe's father is, and mother Rebecca (Ashley Judd, in a spirited and intelligent performance) ain't saying.

Before anyone can shout, 'Father figure!', Rebecca is dating drama teacher Ben Goodrich (Oliver Platt), who patiently understands why Joe resents his presence as well as why both Joe and Rebecca care for Simon, though he does not know about Simon's ongoing fantasy regarding Rebecca's breasts ('the best pair in town!').

One day, during a Peewee League game, Simon whacks a foul ball so far it makes the average Mark McGwire homer look like a bunt. With horrifying precision, the ball strikes Rebecca on the noggin, killing her. Joe forgives his buddy this terrible deed, as if Simon had accidentally spilled iced tea on the living-room rug. With mom gone, the two boys decide to identify Joe's missing father. All the while, Simon keeps repeating, should the plot point be forgotten, that he is destined to be a hero ('...things will be different...once God makes me a hero').

Coincidentally, on the very day they discover who Joe's father is-an anticlimactic revelation, as it turns out-his school bus crashes into freezing water and Simon, who has been conveniently practicing holding his breath under water, sacrifices himself to rescue the children. He does not die immediately, but lingers in the hospital long enough for a poignant death-bed scene, or two.

One of the few redeeming features of Simon Birch is its charming Canadian locations, which provide picturesque diversion as the plot stumbles along.

--Bruce Feld