Following impressive runs as Johnny Carson’s head writer from 1969 to 1970 and as Woody Allen’s writing partner for Sleeper (1973), Annie Hall (1977), and Manhattan (1979), Marshall Brickman launched a brief and only moderately successful directorial career with the sci-fi satire Simon. Starring Alan Arkin in a role well-suited to the actor’s unique gifts, the movie bears obvious traces of Allen’s cinematic style, although Brickman is unable to match his former collaborator on the levels of hilarity, insight, and substance. Simon is mostly sorta-funny and sorta-smart, so the film is only sorta-memorable. Seen today, the movie loses even more potency because so many of the jokes are directed at the extremes of hippy-dippy ’70s scientists—for instance, the picture’s main villain evokes turtleneck-loving ’70s science star Carl Sagan, who deserves better than to be used as the visual reference for a nefarious character.
Borrowing a gimmick that Allen used many times, the movie opens like a documentary, introducing viewers to the great minds at the Institute for Advanced Concepts, a think tank funded with seemingly unlimited government money. Under the supervision of Dr. Carl Becker (Austin Pendleton), the eggheads at the institute contrive experiments for amusement rather than for higher purposes, for instance skewing Nielson ratings to help the variety show Donnie & Marie become a hit. One day, the scientists decide it would be fun to convince the American public than an alien lives among them. After running data, they identify college professor Simon Mendelssohn (Arkin) as the individual most susceptible to the suggestion that he’s from another planet. Mendelssohn is a low-rent theorist whose desire to make an important social contribution far exceeds his talents, so he’s flattered when he’s invited to join the think tank—and he’s thrilled when Becker and his cronies reveal their “discovery” of Mendelssohn’s true origins. Later, once the eggheads present Mendelssohn to the world, Simon goes rogue, using pirate-broadcasting technology to share his supposedly extraterrestrial wisdom with the people of the world.
Brickman, who cowrote the film’s original story with Thomas Baum, can’t figure out where to take the outlandish concept, and he can’t sustain a consistent tone. Although the movie never slides into full-on stupidity, various broad jokes diminish the clever gags by association. It’s also distracting that cinematographer Adam Holender so obviously mimics the shadow-drenched shooting style of master DP Gordon Willis, who shot Annie Hall and Manhattan. Arkin scores a few wonderfully silly moments, Pendleton’s performance is quite sly, and leading lady Judy Graubart, as Mendelssohn’s rightfully skeptical girlfriend, is charming in a neurotic sort of way. (The great Madeline Kahn is wasted in a too-small supporting role.) Yet the real problem with the picture is that it’s hard to care what happens to the main character, who toggles between obnoxious and pathetic.