Hollywood Pictures

The riddle of the Sphinx: Stephen Dillane and Sophie Marceau in Hollywood Pictures' Firelight

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Simon Birch
area theaters, starts Friday, September 11

It used to be that you could tell a movie by its studio. In the '30s, for instance, MGM had its ornate musicals, Warners had its gritty gangster pictures, and Paramount had its incomparably sophisticated screwball comedies. Now, if they're distinguishable at all, the major studios are known mainly for the celebrity executives who spin through their revolving doors on the way to lunch at Spago. Still, one might regard Disney's penny-pinching Hollywood Pictures, with its aptly chintzy-looking sphinx logo, as an ancient artifact among the current crop. Between Jack and Eddie, Powder and Evita, Father Hood and Son In Law, The Scarlet Letter and Mr. Holland's Opus, The Air Up There and The Tie That Binds (I could go on), the company's output has earned this rather poetic dismissal from the industry: "If it's the Sphinx, it stinks."

Hollywood Pictures may not have a signature style per se, but, to the extent that the studio's new Firelight and Simon Birch continue a tradition of inimitably awful product, perhaps that Sphinx crack has become the outfit's own motto. Strategically released to the art house during a wan week for new releases, its promotional duties dumped onto Disney's dutiful Miramax (which might relish the chance to sell ice in the North Pole), the Sphinx's Firelight comes with a plot so full of sap you could make syrup out of it. In the winter of 1838, Charles (Stephen Dillane), son of a British aristocrat and husband to an invalid, pays Elisabeth (Sophie Marceau), a poor Swiss governess, 500 pounds to bear him a child and then disappear. So for three nights they meet in a fire-lit hotel room, mainly to grant the Sphinx a little upscale titillation. But the film is woefully chaste--not counting some missionary-position moaning that isn't appreciably sexier than the scene in which Elisabeth is shown delivering the baby.

Director William Nicholson (who wrote the dread Nell) handles the passage of time like a true hack, marking the next seven years with Elisabeth's succession of anonymous, handcrafted birthday cards to the daughter she adores from afar. Eventually, the lovesick heroine breaks her contract by taking a pseudonym and becoming governess to 7-year-old Louisa (Dominique Belacourt), who, not recognizing her mum, delivers the movie's most resonant line: "Bugger away, lady." Otherwise, this aloof melodrama only articulates its "passion" when Dillane gives the viewer a quick flash of his penis. For some, that moment may be worth the price of admission, but rather than review the star's anatomy here, I'll simply mention that only self-punishing connoisseurs of bad big-screen soapers could get even a giggle out of this. And anyone who cries during it should honestly consider therapy.

Speaking of tearjerkers, the oldest formula in the book is the one about the very "special" and terminally ill child, which the Sphinx milks for all it's worth in Simon Birch. A cross between E.T., Tattoo, and that kid on The Wonder Years, the little angel of the title is a precocious young dwarf (Ian Michael Smith) whose name might have been Owen Meany, had author John Irving (A Prayer For Owen Meany) not asked the studio to call its liberal adaptation something else. Thus "suggested by the novel" (rather than based on it), Simon Birch crunches Irving's decades-long story into a single year and still it lacks for plot.

Set in the early '60s, the film adopts the physically challenged pace of its 12-year-old hero, as he and his best friend Joe (Joseph Mazzello) hike through the woods, play baseball, and talk about girls. Simon suffers the endless persecution of classmates but remains convinced that one day God will turn him into a hero--which is apparently what the movie's waiting for, too. Giving himself free rein with the source material, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson contrives a cameo for the newly serious Jim Carrey as the grown Joe, who, narrating in voiceover, describes his little buddy as "the reason I believe in God." No wonder every shot is bathed in a heavenly glow, while Simon, described as "a miracle," ends up playing the baby Jesus in the church play. "Simon showed us what a martyr was," says the adult Joe; so too the film preaches to its audience.

Unfortunately, Good Friday comes rather late and, amid multiple tragedies, the only surprise in this bathetic pastiche is that it doesn't end with a brief passage from the New Testament. Suffice to say there's no part in the sequel for the actor who plays Simon, an 11-year-old born with a genetic disorder called Morquio's Syndrome. Still, I'd guess the Sphinx was careful to get its little miracle under contract just in case.

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