Alan Arkin is such an inward-oriented actor that all comedy in Simon (1980) happens around, not because of him. And that’s bad news, since there’s precious little in director Marshall Brickman’s screenplay that wouldn’t rely on our amusement (or endearment) with its main character’s small-minded folly.
Arkin plays professor Simon Mendelssohn: a lug of a scientist, whose theories may sound complex, but would never strike you as bright. He spews them out as if he was ranting about his favorite baseball team in a barber’s chair. Arkin can be very loud in this movie, but he doesn’t let himself any flights of fancy or ignition – his mad scientist is a complete square.
Simon becomes reprogrammed to genetically resemble an extra-terrestrial, and then slips away from the controlling team of scientists that conceived the idea (they’re a wacky bunch and the best reason to see the movie – Wallace Shawn and Max Wright come off as a pair of self-amused dorks; a joy to watch!).
Since the film is visually comatose, we’re condemned to picking up bits and pieces of amusing lines, concepts and actors’ turns. It comes as no surprise that Madeline Kahn should stand out as a sexy, over-educated scientist who talks about death to turn Simon on. Her appearance is the high point of the movie. What dominates most of it, though, is fanciful satire on dumbing effects of TV, reeking of the kind of stand-up-skit dialogue I find irritating each time it makes its way into a movie: be it Brickman’s, or Allen’s, or anyone else’s. There are some zingers that sound best when thrown from the stage; they sound awfully contrived when the writer hacks them into a supposed exchange between characters. Simon, alas, relies on them almost entirely.