Films

To save 20th-century man— a lunatic consumer critic

SIMON Directed by Marshall Brickman

Lawrence O’Toole March 17 1980
Films

To save 20th-century man— a lunatic consumer critic

SIMON Directed by Marshall Brickman

Lawrence O’Toole March 17 1980

To save 20th-century man— a lunatic consumer critic

Films

SIMON Directed by Marshall Brickman

Good satire always keeps a safe and healthy distance. In Being There, Chance the gardener looked askance at contemporary society from the only perspective he knew: television. In Marshall Brickman’s first and utterly nutty film, Simon, the world is viewed from a similar dramatic dis-

tance: an orphaned, klutzy college professor named Simon Mendelssohn (Alan Arkin) is brainwashed by a bunch of bored and brilliant scientists into believing he’s from outer space. What with its head-space, as it were, Simon could easily have been called From There. The movie’s like a perfect date— it’s very clever, terrific to look at and leaves you smiling.

Very subtly Simon addresses itself to North America’s No. 1 disease: boredom. The scientists who brainwash Simon (by depriving him of sensation for hours on end) reside somewhere in Maine at the Institute for Advanced Concepts. Disaffected with their grandiose pursuit of saving the world, for which they have been granted unlimited funds, they decide to end their ennui by having some fun in foisting an alien upon a general public ready to believe anything. They decide on “full

media coverage.” Modern science, contends Brickman with superb screwy sense, assumes a possibility is immediately a necessity: one of the members of the “think tank” is quite serious about crossbreeding a cockroach with a human for greater “adaptability.” Outside the realm of science, as Simon finds out, people will do anything to avoid boredom, even to the point of enjoying it. Otherwise there would be no such thing as television. When Simon escapes from the institute with his girl-friend (Judy Graubart), who keeps insisting to him that he’s a mensch and not a Martian, he winds up at a commune where the “sacred box” is worshipped with biblical fervor: “Miltie who begat Lucy who begat Mary who spun off Rhoda . . .” Simon asks a child there to “dig deep into your heart and tell me what is the most wonderful thing in the world”; not missing a beat, she blithely replies, “Disco.”

As directing debuts go, Brickman’s is deft and rare. His previous work—collaborations with Woody Allen on the scripts of Sleeper, Annie Hall and Manhattan— doesn’t prepare one for the striking and clean visual style—Stanley Kubrick, but telling jokes. Though uncomfortably close to Sleeper in concept, Simon is looser and nervier, and it has a unique, edgy tone. Logic keeps making so many U-turns that it seems to say the only moral option for modern man is total voluntary derangement. How else can you fight TV, music in elevators, lawyers and people who say “don’t invade my space.” When Simon hooks into the three major networks to admonish the nation, you’re with him.

Simon is a motherlode of wit, exquisitely veined—like an extended New Yorker humor piece. A large computer named Doris (the voice of Louise Lasser) in the shape of a Princess telephone, who likes her circuits caressed, gives credence to the notion that God is really an executive secretary: very effi-

cient but hard to get to know. A gas gets loose at the institute that results in the scientists losing 100 points in IQ each. The performances are all pleasures, from Austin Pendleton with his expressive overbite as the head honcho at the institute to Madeline Kahn as a fetching piece of brain who has published A History of Oral Sex Techniques and who says that seducing Simon has nothing to do with her psychoanalytic approach, rather, “something I do with my tongue.”

As Simon, Alan Arkin looks like Genghis Khan in one of Talia Shire’s

woollen hats and has the aspect of an agitated ascetic—the Messiah as impassioned consumer critic. Arkin does his best work in ages, notably in a brilliant mime sequence where he goes through the entire evolutionary cycle, from protozoan through biped, at the end of which it pops into his head that he’s a toaster. The attempts at wit don’t always hit and Brickman doesn’t always have a handle on the tone but Simon, person and movie, is a sweet surprise. When he and it wing in from out there it’s enough to tie Doris’ circuits in a knot. Lawrence O’Toole