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Adventurous, quirky, determined to be original -- these qualities are frequently attributed to breakout comedies that open new doors, creatively or commercially. Off the top of my head, I'd list Risky Business and Groundhog Day but I'm sure that others could put together an endless list of trendsetters. 1980's Simon is a gentle farce but not one that can hope to energize the full general audience -- not every comedy can be Animal House, nor should be.
Marshall Brickman is a former Woody Allen collaborator with a mind of his own. His Simon takes on a number of modern targets for satire, while providing a smart showcase for several very funny personalities. It's easy to say that Brickman's verbally oriented humor may be too cerebral; his movie evokes smiles, not belly laughs. I broke out laughing two or three times in Simon, which for me is a lot. But I felt thoroughly charmed all the way through. Simon is so special that describing its particular goofy spell isn't easy.
Professor Simon Mendelssohn (Alan Arkin) is a neurotic, self-absorbed, genius-challenged researcher who talks himself into a fever over his half-baked projects. His weary wife Lisa (Judy Graubert of The Electric Company) indulges him as best she can. Simon pops up in a talent search conducted by a brainstorming think tank given enormous resources by the U.S. military. Leading a pack of near-crazy technological gurus is Dr. Carl Becker (Austin Pendleton), a cagey player forever searching for ways to keep the Pentagon's moolah rolling in. The resident eggheads Fichandler, Barundi, Eric von Dongen and Leon Hudertwasser (William Finley, Jayant, Wallace Shawn & Max Wright) engage in ridiculously worthless research ideas as if playing in a billion-dollar laboratory-sandbox. Much of their work resembles elaborate, mean-spirited technological pranks. Carl gets them to cooperate on the idea of passing off ignorant recruit Simon to the public as an extraterrestrial. Lapping up the idea that he too is an exalted genius, Simon is easy prey for Carl's flattery. He submits to the group's conditioning, part of which is conducted by "Dr. Cynthia Mallory" (Madeline Kahn), an attractive actress hired to add further confusion. Simon is soon the subject of videos where he claims to be an alien being. He dispenses his ridiculous ideas for improving the world - - the same crackpot nonsense he spouted back at the University. When Lisa finally sees Simon, he's living in a germ-free isolation room -- against the danger of alien diseases, you see. Things go out of control when the military brass shows up to see what the group is doing. Simon escapes, only to fall into the hands of an ex- TV network executive now living as the leader of a commune (Adolph Green). When Simon's image hits the airwaves, the whole planet learns about the fantastic alien and his ideas for saving the world.
Marshall Brickman's supremely silly comedy makes fine use of underappreciated talent. By 1980 the great Alan Arkin was doing mostly supporting work, and he seizes the opportunity to bring a fairly strange comic character to life. The perfect candidate for Carl Becker's confidence game, Simon is so tickled to have his 'genius' acknowledged that he wills himself into thinking anything they want him to think. The laughs never resort to outright slapstick, but absurd theatrics enter when Simon performs/experiences a psychological process of evolution. With the theme, 'the madmen encourage an even bigger looney' the comedy walks a fine line, and mostly stays on course.
Frequent De Palma actor William Finley and the other members of the irresponsible brain trust contribute their share of crazy ideas, almost all of which come across as infantile super-pranks. Their think tank is basically a big game of finger-paints for irresponsible techno-wimps. Austin Pendleton is marvelous as the 'practical' leader of the bunch, talking a line of pure research while searching for new ways to snooker the Pentagon dummies into writing checks. Carl Becker's 'goofy' smile hides his snickering calculation. He humors Simon's most ridiculous outbursts but can also improvise brilliant schemes when needed. To curb Simon's silly blather, the think tank creates a gas that lowers one's IQ. The bumbling scientists instead give themselves a dose. When General Korey (Fred Gwynne, playing straight) sees Carl's group of experts now acting like idiots, he is delighted: "You've found a way to make the enemy stupid!"
As could be expected, William Finley just comes across as deranged, while Wallace Shawn's mad doctor has a truly funny gleam in his eyes at all time. Madeline Kahn's vampish faux-scientist is hilarious, feeding Simon's ego while matching wits with the conniving Carl. Adolph Green's TV cult is a pack of bozos that chant commercial jingles, a spoof idea that's less silly than it sounds -- millions of today's brainwashed Americans invest their emotional lives in TV fodder.
Simon borrows ideas from science fiction to make fun of academia and the think-tank phenomenon. Altered States, for instance: preparing for an extended stay in his underfunded, jerry-rigged sensory deprivation chamber, Simon emerges after just a couple of seconds, convinced that he's been in suspended animation for a week. He then almost electrocutes himself, while the long-suffering Lisa looks on. Brickman doesn't satirize the sci-fi genre but themes pop in from The Man Who Fell to Earth and the episode The Architects of Fear from The Outer Limits. Simon's influence on gullible TV watchers reminds us of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, and even Network. Perhaps the show needed a bigger ending of some sort, as it doesn't leave viewers with a big laugh to talk about later. But Simon had me smiling throughout. I enjoyed seeing Arkin, Kahn, Pendleton and Shawn create these amusing characters. The movie won't do anything for a laugh, and instead goes for something different.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Simon is a good enhanced widescreen transfer of a film seen by most of us on 1980s cable television. Colors are good, and the audio more than adequate. The movie probably did little for Marshall Brickman's career; people that have seen it either approve heartily or never engaged with it at all. We realize that Ivan Reitman's Ghostbusters took the concept of academic frauds and made it much more commercial, but somehow I don't want to see Simon changed by a frame. I think this is exactly what Brickman wanted it to be, and the assembled comedians are too lovable just as they are.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. A dissenting opinion -- well said -- from frequent Savant correspondent "B":
Dear Glenn: Nice review. I wish I'd seen the picture you saw.
My memory of this is watching wonderful comic actors perform what seemed like sure fire comedy material... and the film simply lay there dying. The audience I saw it with had come to see a movie that it presumably hoped was something like a Woody Allen comedy, and the crowd simply didn't respond. There were walkouts after ten minutes; by the time the film was over, there were only a few people left. Part of this, I think, was because the picture just didn't work -- there was somehow no way for the audience to engage with Arkin's character, and Brickman didn't consistently understand how to stage and time his gags. The Stanley Silverman score actually worked against some of the comedy bits! It was a painful night at a movie theatre; one I've never forgotten.
Brickman's second film, the ambitious romantic comedy Lovesick, is even less successful, but is perhaps a bit better remembered by some because it's a tad more conventional and even sentimental by comparison. His other picture, The Manhattan Project, is not really a success either, but it's interesting, off-beat and features a terrific John Lithgow performance. Best, Always. -- B.
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