Sentimentality is a much-maligned attitude in these cynical days, but it’s only the flipside of cynicism that sense of vague tenderness toward some public commodity, that when disappointed often enough, turns mistrustful and self-protective. But the unabashedly sentimental Simon Birch never disappoints: No postmodern twists lurk in this sweet, winning, and unpretentious story; in the end, it leaves an unspecific goodwill toward dogs and sunsets, and a theater bathroom full of weeping women.
“Suggested by” John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, which Irving would not allow the filmmakers to use, Simon Birch (written by director Mark Steven Johnson) tells a roughly similar story of an undersized boy convinced that, in his short time on Earth, he has a destiny to fulfill. It’s the mid-’60s, and the churchgoing Maine town in which he lives bridles at Simon’s brand of rapturous faith and his talk of “God’s plan,” especially coming from such a funny, practical, cynical little being. As played by the extraordinary Ian Michael Smith, Simon is fully aware of his condition’s effect on people and its impact on his life, even as he participates in Pee Wee baseball and the school Christmas pageant.
When they’re not breaking and entering (always for the right reasons), Simon and his best friend, Joe (Joseph Mazzello), hang out at the lake, engaging in macho challenges (Simon holds his breath underwater) and talking about chicks. Simon likes girls; with the vagueness and intensity of any 12-year-old boy, he schemes to get closer to them “Maybe she’ll let us touch them sometime,” he proposes about a schoolmate who’s just sprung breasts “if we paid her.” He gets a feral, bared-teeth look when faced with girls he likes, including Joe’s sexy mother (Ashley Judd), who walks past the gawping men of the town in perpetual windblown slow motion.
Simon believes that he doesn’t have much time to become the hero he is sure God wants him to be, so a set of kooky, sweet, and tragic events begins to accumulate: Joe’s own mission, to discover the identity of his father, is temporarily foiled by his mother’s terrific new suitor (Oliver Platt) and then by a horrible accident; the Christmas pageant heads toward disaster; and the boys get into trouble at school and in church. Director Johnson ambles decorously through these developments but keeps the tension high as well when, and in what way, will Simon’s destiny call?
Simon Birch is not the most sophisticated movie-making. The narration in the wraparound story (by Jim Carrey) contains such banalities as “Weeks turned into months, and months turned into years,” and the score consists of that playful “stalking” music peculiar to sitcoms and too-adorable movies, when the soundtrack isn’t blaring the most obvious of baby boomer hits of the day. But it’s clean and tight; all the elements come together with a dovetail precision that is supposed to illustrate the tangibility of God’s plan, but it’s really just excellent if unrumpled fiction plotting. Smith and Mazzello are each charmers in their own way, and the Maine settingspectacular fall leaves, crisp vistas of snow, football-weather blue skies, and the bucolic neverland of the lake is dazzling.
First-time filmmaker Troy Beyer proposes to tear the lid off female sexual secrets with Let’s Talk About Sex, in which she stars as Jasmine, a would-be TV-show host documenting women’s deepest “mating and dating” thoughts while she and her two roommates’ own love lives reach their crisis points. But any truths she does manage to squeeze out of the (real) interview subjects are buried under the avalanche of self-love that makes up the rest of the film. The movie’s milieu Miami Beach is so glossy, and the heroines’ troubles are so painfully, revealingly shallow, that Let’s Talk About Sex is really just Let’s Talk About Me in interviewer’s clothing.
Jasmine, a Jada Pinkett type called Jazz, claims to be an advice columnist for a Miami newspaper but yearns to do something more meaningful, something that will exploit her talents such as becoming a local talk-show host. A station with an open time slot is soliciting videotapes, so Jasmine conscripts her roommates to help put together a sample video for her dream show, Girl Talk. The subjects of the proposed show don’t go very deep thrills, skills, likes, and dislikes and the trio don’t look far outside their own circle for participants: In Beyer’s view, a women’s sex survey should collect the opinions of beautiful girls from 18 to 23.
While romping around Miami with a video camera, the roommates are reaching their own tragic turning points: Jazz has thrown away a perfectly good fiancé because of a Terrible Secret; cool, controlled Michelle (Paget Brewster) wants to stop dominating men and reconnect with her own mother, who has the nerve to be enjoying life with a new family; and statuesque, Cher-like beauty Lena (Randi Ingerman) is continually mistreated by cads despite her looks she melts for these rotters all over again, after vowing not to, when their problems are worse than her own (as in “My band broke up”).
Beyer extracts no irony from recording the frivolous sexual gossip of stunning young women who know all the coolest doormen, or from the possibility that their problems might be a little different from those of other people. Her Miami is a multicultural paradise of brown, pink, and golden models in thong bikinis gyrating amid the clamor of the right nightclubs and restaurant openings; no one works, so the rent for the heroines’ fabulous three-bedroom apartment must be a steal.
Let’s Talk About Sex is like a male fantasy of the MTV Beach House as Amazonia an island of stunning broads in sheer dresses and halter tops who pose on the sand and in cafes when they’re not lamenting their lack of emotional openness. The three girls react the way men think women do when someone has a crisis, the other two tend to look at each other. They fret about situations in which “the energy was wrong,” and when setbacks occur, it is a terrible, horrible, very bad day for little Jazz and her friends.
The most unwittingly funny scene comes when Jazz’s final videotape is mislaid it’s the only copy; Michelle’s supposed to take it to the studio and ask if she can make a copy “if the vibe is right.” (Why the girls didn’t see this coming, knowing perfectly well that they’re in a movie concerning two videotapes, one of utmost importance, the other a homemade sex vid, is beyond me.) The mix-up delays her talk-show hopes, and, in a rage of sorrow and lamentation, while mournful music plays on the soundtrack, the three girls scrub the apartment maniacally, pausing only to break down sobbing like white tornadoes into the gleaming tub. We’re real sorry Jasmine didn’t get her little TV show this year, but honestly, ladies.
Since everyone is young and beautiful and has nothing on her mind but herself, all three crises reach a head simultaneously and are tidily resolved. Accepting her new role as a nice little woman, Michelle is granted a plum not just a cute bartender, but a cute bartender/video editor/research psychiatrist who loves her for herself, not for her pesky sass and self-confidence. Lena learns to dump as well as be dumped, and Jasmine, being the main character, gets the bestest prize a big ol’ husband to compensate for the career she’s lost. Everyone’s fulfilled all around. But did you know that Jasmine’s experiment is the most important thing that’s ever happened to these creatures? That’s right, as Jazz mourns her lost tape (which never even made it to the semifinals; I mean, she “lost” a job she had no guarantee of coming near), her friends reassure her on the fadeout: “You’ve created something that changed all of our lives forever.” That can’t be right did she really invent Lycra?