Recently a think tank of the five finest minds in American science have been assembled to solve the problems facing humanity: the food shortage, the environment, and so on. But at this exclusive institute where they are living, they found those minds drawn by other matters, which is why they are currently developing a way of indoctrinating the American public to change their ways with a man they can turn into a figurehead. Where will they find this man? They need someone who was an orphan, is of above average intelligence and able to be brainwashed by their scheme, and the person they settle on is Simon Mendelson (Alan Arkin), a New York lecturer with ambitions...
The writer and director Marshall Brickman had spent most of the nineteen-seventies penning some of Woody Allen's biggest hits with him, but come 1980 he evidently felt he needed to branch out on his own and this movie was the result. It was not a big hit but has gone on to pick up a cult following, just not a very big one. The trouble was, while it was obviously the work of a very intelligent man, he was applying that intelligence to take the mickey out of prime time TV like The Donny and Marie Osmond Show, or the then on the wane disco phenomenon. You felt he would have been better off taking his wit and imagination in the direction of some sharper targets.
Curiously, this was one of those films like Ken Russell's Altered States that revolved around a sensory deprivation tank for the lead character to float around in. Simon has devised his own makeshift version at the start of the story that you think is going to be a throwaway gag, until later on when he is at the boffins' institute and he is given an extended stay in one that devolves his evolution to an amoeba level, whereupon Arkin acts out the entirety of the development of life over millions of years through the medium of mime. Again, it's a smart sequence and the product of a lot of imagination married to a very talented actor, but is it funny to do yet another 2001: A Space Odyssey joke?
Not really, is the answer to that, and so it continues with the newly brainwashed Simon believing himself to be a space alien and introduced to the world as this galactic guru who everyone starts to follow - the scientists have altered his physical details to create new blood and sperm that will be more convincing as extra-terrestrial. Exactly how they have done this is a mystery Brickman never explains, it's another of those gags that make little sense on examination, such as the institute's master computer in the shape of a giant phone handset that speaks with the voice of Louise Lasser (uncredited) and the head scientist (Austin Pendleton) is so pleased with that he has sex with it (somehow) in a baffling bit of humour.
The only sane person here is Simon's girlfriend from his university, Lisa (children's TV presenter Judy Graubart in a failed attempt to make grownup films), but she is reduced to haranguing him at every turn, understandable when he has become so gullible and so in love with the sound of his own voice, but not the most entertaining character to be around. Also not helping were that Simon's proclamations about how to improve society were hacky second-rate stand-up comedian observations that even Jerry Seinfeld would have rejected, so that lack of a convincing premise did harm the believability in the long run. Fair enough, Brickman's Sleeper screenplay was not the most cast-iron reality check a few years earlier, but that was a spoof, and here it was tough to make out what in the scattershot satire the point was. Ending with the Space Shuttle launch a year before it happened in real life, this was an intriguing watch, but only rarely prompted laughter, a missed opportunity overall. Music by Stanley Silverman.