Marshall Brickman has served a long apprenticeship, writing screenplays with Woody Allen. "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" are among his credits. Now he has written and directed a movie of his own, and it's a beauty.
"Simon" is just a light comedy, of course, full of puns and sight gags. Yet it stands well above most other recent comedies because Brickman isn't afraid to use his brain. "Simon" jokes about things that grownups joke about in real life. Unlike, say, the films of Mel Brooks, which joke about the things second-graders joke about in real life.
Much of the action takes place at a research institute, funded by a government grant and run by a group of insanely mischievous scientists. Originally their mission was to "save the world," but they got into "more interesting material" -- like inventing an electronic system to mess up the TV ratings and developing a gas that makes people stupid.
One day, a member of the gang takes to wondering what would happen if an extraterrestrial suddenly showed up on earth. So the mad scientists set up an experiment. They recruit a psychology teacher named Simon, brainwash him with weird laboratory procedures, and convince him that he's an alien from another part of our galaxy. Things get even crazier when Simon decides it's hism mission to save the world and starts to issue proclamations via national TV: No more Muzak in elevators, no more ketchup in little plastic pouches, no more hot-air hand-dryers in washrooms, and similar apocalyptic ideas.
It's a clever concept for a movie -- a man who thinks he's from outer space, and a world that's all too eager to believe him. Brickman doesn't bring much depth to the story, staying on the surface of his characters and situations. "Simon" could have been a richer film if it probed more deeply into the possibilities it raises and left out some of its more obvious or questionable routines, such as a scene where a scientist develops a passion for his computer.
Still, there are enough ingenious gags and plot twists in "Simon" to keep you laughing for more than 90 minutes, and that's more than most movies can offer. The "think tank" scenes are sparked by superb performances from Austin Pendleton , William Finley, and Max Wright, who offer hilarious parodies of their real-life counterparts. Another on-target sequence takes place at the headquarters of a religious cult that worships television -- or "the sacred box, " as they prefer to call it -- by listening to readings from TV Guide and solemnly singing a soup commercial. Then there's the brilliant scene wherein Alan Arkin acts out the entire evolution of life on earth in about three minutes. It's a tour de force that tops all of Arkin's previous screenwork.
Though some gags misfire, and a few are in dubious taste, "Simon" is an uncommonly consistent comedy, with all manner of comments to make about contemporary American life -- right down to a little girl who, asked to search her heart and name the most beautiful thing she can think of, replies "Disco!" Woody Allen's distinctive touch can often be felt in brickman's directorial personality; in ways, "Simon" is a spin-off of Allen's "Sleeper." Still, it's full of surprises. And Brickman is definitely a talent to keep an eye on.