Thursday, November 21, 2013

#1,193. Simon (1980)

Directed By: Marshall Brickman

Starring: Alan Arkin, Madeline Kahn, Austin Pendleton

Tag line: "He loves you. Do what he says"

Trivia: Alan Arkin was nominated for Best Actor by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films

I was anxious to watch Simon again, which I first saw on cable a few years after its initial release. At that time, I had no idea what to make of this curious sci-fi / comedy. I remember not everyone in my family appreciated its quirky nature (my father walked out in the middle of it, calling the movie “stupid as hell”), yet there was something about Simon that I found oddly appealing. Would I have the same reaction to it now?

Directed by longtime Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman, Simon stars Alan Arkin as Simon Mendelssohn, a University psychology professor with a strange outlook on life. He soon becomes the subject of a very unusual experiment conducted by five of the world’s sharpest minds, all working together at a secret Government facility. In short, they want to convince Simon he’s an alien, a being from another world. With the help of Cynthia Mallory (Madeline Kahn), an actress posing as Simon’s new “assistant”, the experiment is a rousing success, but with one small hiccup: the “alien” Simon now believes he’s a modern-day prophet, sent to earth to set mankind on the straight and narrow path. His longtime girlfriend, Lisa (Judy Graubert), is brought in to talk some sense into Simon, but can she show him the error of his ways before the Government “liquidates” the experiment, and Simon right along with it?

Woody Allen’s influence can be felt throughout Simon, starting with the film’s characters, most of whom are intellectuals. In the opening scene, we meet the five scientists who will eventually carry out the experiment on Simon: Dr. Carl Becker (Austin Pendleton); Fichandler (William Finley); Barundi (Janyant); Eric Van Dongen (Walace Shawn) and Leon Hundertwasser (Max Wright). For years, they’ve been working at The Institute for Advanced Concepts, with their research funded by the U.S. Government. After introducing them, the narrator (James Dukas) asks Dr. Becker why they were brought together in the first place. “To think about food, the ecology, energy, that sort of thing”, Becker responds. The narrator then asks him what went wrong, to which an indignant Becker replies “Nothing went wrong. We just got into more interesting material, that’s all”. What sort of “material”? Well, for starters, they built a device to jam every Nielson box (the method by which television ratings are determined) in the country so that they can feed the company false numbers. To prove their success, Dr. Hundertwasser picks up a copy of Variety with a headline that the Donny and Marie Osmond Show sored a 60 share, which translates to 70 million viewers. With a smile on his face, Hundertwasser reveals that, in reality, no more than 1,200 people actually saw this program.

As for Simon, he was off his rocker well before the experiment began: during one of his classes, he posed a question to his students: What do we do when Earth, choked by pollution, runs out of air? Simple, he says: turn the entire planet into a spaceship and move it to another solar system! At times, Arkin is a bit over-the-top in his portrayal of Simon, but I think this works to the character’s advantage, giving the film an out-of-control, yet lovable lead with whom we can identify. His performance, coupled with a delightfully bizarre story, make Simon a unique comedy, and one with a whole lot of personality.