John Irving's novels -- which juicily mix comedy, melodrama, real-world issues and fable -- can seem "natural" screen material. But as prior mixed-bag versions of "The World According to Garp" and "The Hotel New Hampshire" proved, capturing Irving's mercurial tonal shifts in another medium is not so easy.

John Irving’s novels — which juicily mix comedy, melodrama, real-world issues and fable — can seem “natural” screen material. But as prior mixed-bag versions of “The World According to Garp” and “The Hotel New Hampshire” proved, capturing Irving’s mercurial tonal shifts in another medium is not so easy. Drastically reducing 1989’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany” in narrative scale and complexity — to the point that Irving himself demanded a character name (and, hence, title) change, as well as “suggested by” rather than “based on” credit — “Simon Birch” might as well say its B.O. prayers right now.

Without even the original moniker to draw in the bestseller’s fans, the syrupy hash first-time director Mark Steven Johnson has wrought looks weak as both mainstream and arthouse fare.

Otherwise starless pic’s only chance lies in whatever ability it has to exploit Jim Carrey’s token (and just briefly onscreen) contrib as narrator, or in longshot fluke appeal to some gullible segment of the public.

Six-hundred-page book’s numerous subplots and multiple themes (including a major Vietnam War component) have been excised. What’s left is basically a familiar (albeit with some eccentric angles) summer-that-changed-my-life childhood memory piece.

That might still have worked — but Johnson (who scripted “Grumpy Old Men”) flattens out any promise so completely that the feature resembles nothing so much as a subpar “Hallmark Hall of Fame” entry.

After short initial intro of now grown-up Joe Wenteworth (Carrey) at his erstwhile friend’s grave, film flashes back to the early ’60s, evoked via conventional Americana: picture-postcard views and soundtracked golden oldies.

Setting is Gravestown, N.H., where Joe (Joseph Mazzello) is raised by his loving mom, Rebecca (Ashley Judd), who has refused to divulge — even to him — his father’s identity. But Joe’s being labeled a “bastard” isn’t half so bad as the fate that’s befallen another boy in town, Simon Birch (Ian Michael Smith): Born so tiny his mother barely noticed the delivery, he grows into a pint-size preadolescent whom adults ridicule and fellow kids cluck over or pass around like a doll.

Naturally, the two boys become best friends. And since Simon’s parents callously ignore him — seemingly out of embarrassment — he welcomes Rebecca’s substitute-parent affection.

Almost unnaturally bright, caustically critical of authority (particularly where David Strathairn’s the Rev. Russell and Jan Hooks’ neurotic teacher are concerned), Simon is convinced of his role as “God’s instrument,” one fated to be a hero some day.

Crueler fate, in the form of a freak accident, suddenly removes Rebecca from the boys’ 12-year-old lives, leaving only Joe’s crotchety grandma (Dana Ivey) and his mother’s kindly, grieving suitor Ben (Oliver Platt). The duo now become more earnest about uncovering the secret of Joe’s paternity.

The info is revealed in due course, followed by a second disastrous event and inevitable deathbed tear-jerking theatrics. Carrey returns for the warm-and-fuzzy fade, his own young son (named Simon, natch) in tow.

Though routinely slick, feature grows more irksome as it goes along — the lack of any genuinely felt emo-tions communicated makes later melodrama come off as shameless contrivance. (It’s the film’s misfortune to arrive after “The Sweet Hereafter,” which realizes a similar central incident to infinitely more horrific and moving effect.)

Big scenes are handled in the most obvious fashion, with frequent recourse to “dramatic” slo-mo. Irving’s robust comedic sense, meanwhile, is reduced to cutesy “Our Gang” fodder, especially in the major set piece of a church Christmas pageant gone awry. His surreal, larger-than-life tenor is grasped at by means no better than the occasional looming, cartoony close-up.

Without any depth in script, or nuance in direction, thesps are left to their own abilities. All the adults are competent (especially a serene, warm Judd), though denied the chance to create memorable turns. Carrey has nothing to do but look earnest in his few moments onscreen, while his voiceover throughout makes no particular impression.

The juves lack training and charisma to fall back on. Smith, an 11-year-old afflicted with the rare growth-stunting disorder Morquito’s syndrome, will inevitably make more susceptible viewers go “Awww” due to his diminutive size and precocious lines. But neither he nor Mazzello (“Jurassic Park”) shows more than passing natural acting ability.

Tech package is polished, albeit highly unimaginative, from Aaron Schneider’s gauzy lensing on Canadian locations to Marc Shaiman’s treacly score.

Simon Birch

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation in association with Caravan Pictures of a Roger Birnbaum/Laurence Mark production. Produced by Mark, Birnbaum. Executive producer, John Baldecchi. Co-producer, Billy Higgins. Directed, written by Mark Steven Johnson, suggested by the novel "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor prints), Aaron E. Schneider; editor, Betsy Heimann; music, Marc Shaiman; production designer, David Chapman; art director, Dennis Davenport; set decorator, Carolyn A. Loucks; costume designers, Betsy Heiman, Abram Waterhouse; sound (Dolby digital/DTS), Glen Gauthier; associate producer/assistant director, Howard Ellis; second unit director, Mickey Gilbert; casting, Mary Gail Artz, Barbara Cohen. Reviewed at AMC Kabuki 8, San Francisco, Aug. 27, 1998. (In World Film Festival, Montreal -- noncompeting.) MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Simon Birch - Ian Michael Smith Joe Wenteworth - Joseph Mazzello Rebecca Wenteworth - Ashley Judd Ben Goodrich - Oliver Platt Rev. Russell - David Strathairn Grandmother Wenteworth - Dana Ivey Hilde Grove - Beatrice Winde Miss Leavey - Jan Hooks Marjorie - Ceciley Carroll Ann - Sumela-Rose Keramidopulos Stuart - Sam Morton Adult Joe Wenteworth - Jim Carrey

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