Marshall Brickman earned a permanent, prestigious place in the comedy pantheon by co-writing the ingenious 1973 Woody Allen science-fiction classic Sleeper and arguably Allen’s best, most revered films, 1977’s Annie Hall and 1979’s Manhattan. So when Brickman made the leap from screenwriter to writer-director with 1980’s Simon and 1983’s Lovesick, his films owed a deep, understandable debt to his more famous collaborator: Where Lovesick is an underrated psychotherapy-based romantic comedy in the style of Annie Hall, with Dudley Moore in the Allen role of a lovestruck neurotic with the ghost of Sigmund Freud as his primary advisor, Simon is a droll, mercilessly dark social satire in the Sleeper vein.
Blessed with, and cursed by, more clever ideas than it knows what to do with, Simon concerns the sinister goings-on of a think tank with unlimited resources staffed by the world’s greatest, most twisted minds (in Simon, the two are inextricable) and led by a playfully malevolent Austin Pendleton. The think tank was put together to save the world, but instead decided to devote its considerable power to fucking with humanity for its own amusement, whether that means rigging the Nielsen ratings to show Donny And Marie was watched by 60 million people instead of its actual audience of less than 20,000, or replacing Richard Nixon with an exact double upon his return from China. In its most devious masterstroke, the egghead brigade decides to brainwash an egomaniacal, faintly deranged, ambitious philosophy professor (Alan Arkin) into thinking he’s from another planet. (In one of the film’s many inspired gags, Arkin’s “alien” parent has the needling, guilt-inducing personality of a stereotypical Jewish mother.) They then convince a gullible public that Arkin is a genuine space alien. Arkin begins the film with a genius/messiah complex that grows by leaps and bounds once he’s programmed to think he’s an alien prophet here to save earth. (In a rare bit of humility, he asks his “mother” how he’s supposed to save the world when “can’t even get a regular checking account.”) Most of his prescriptions for betterment revolve around the kind of minutiae stand-up comedians obsess about—getting rid of terrible elevator music, prohibiting children from being named “Free,” “Moonbeam,” “Sky,” or “Rain,” and issuing an edict prohibiting men from sporting mutton-chops and a mustache.
Like the group that springs Arkin-the-alien and many other demented ideas on an unsuspecting world, Simon takes a dim view of humanity. For all Brickman’s borderline brilliant ideas, there’s a distinct, deliberate lack of humanity at the film’s core. Arkin is a grandiose monster of ego—when he’s “recruited” to join a league of geniuses early in the film, he acts like it’s a long-overdue honor even before being convinced he’s humanity’s savior. Without the squirmy humanity of a Woody Allen protagonist to ground it—Brickman actively discourages identifying or empathizing with the hopelessly narcissistic Arkin—Simon flits from one smart idea to another without committing to any of them, any more than an inspired but ADD-addled sketch-comedy show might. For example, Simon introduces the brilliant Madeline Kahn as a desperate actor coerced into posing as Arkin’s dream girl—a gorgeous intellectual with a battery of post-graduate degrees and a contract to write a how-to guide to oral sex, with a 100,000-copy first printing. Then the film forgets about her in favor of oddball digressions involving a cult that worships television and uses TV Guide as its bible, and a giant supercomputer that Pendleton longs to fuck, even though it resembles an enormous telephone.
Simon is riddled with moments of genius, yet shows only an intermittent interest in harnessing all that brainy inspiration into a satisfying narrative. It’s too scattered by half, yet funny and clever enough to inspire regret that Brickman veered into such non-Allen-esque fare as For The Boys, Intersection, The Manhattan Project, and the Broadway musical Jersey Boys instead of traveling further down this quirky, cerebral path.
Key features: None.