The Ugly American: President Simon


What was it, not even all of two hours ago that I wondered if President Obama’s latest efforts didn’t even rise to the level of phoning it in? And just maybe you figured it couldn’t get much worse?

It got worse. His Chinese hosts find him rude:

Obama eschewed the Red Flag limousine service that ferried other leaders one by one from a nearby building to a banquet, cultural show and fireworks at the aquatic venue. Some Chinese went online to criticize his preference for the familiar security of a U.S.-supplied vehicle, while others understood his choice, but what happened next surprised many here.

Obama emerged from his car chewing gum; he’s a well-known user of Nicorette, the smoking-cessation gum. But Chinese Internet users, accustomed to the highly formal standards of their stiff party leadership, quickly characterized the leader of the world’s most powerful nation as an impolite “idler,” or careless “rapper.”

“We made this meeting so luxurious, with singing and dancing, but see Obama, stepping out of his car chewing gum like an idler,” wrote Yin Hong, a professor of journalism at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo micro-blog service. Twitter, like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, is banned in China, whose censors fear such services could aid political protest.

One of the smartest comedies ever made was the 1980 sleeper/indy flick, Simon. Alan Arkin plays Simon, a likable but low-rent college psych professor working with sensory deprivation. (It’s very much a movie of its time.) A secret government thinktank made up of supergeniuses with zero supervision and an unlimited budget decide to have a little fun at Simon’s expense. They “hire” him, stick him in his own sensory deprivation tank for way longer than is recommended, then juice him full of hypnosis and chemicals to convince himself and the world that he’s an alien from outer space.

Before you know it he’s started a cult — did I mention it’s very much a movie of its time?

Very funny stuff, especially given all the comedic talent on board. The merry band of prankster scientists is headed up by Austin Pendleton, but also include Wallace Shawn, Max Wright, and others. Madeline Kahn is as delightfully smart & sexy as always. Fred “Herman Munster” Gwynne has a small but unforgettable role as the Army general sent in to the thinktank to restore order. My favorite bit might be the evolutionary sight gag as Simon stumbles out of his SD tank and back into the real world, hitting every “step” in the famous Ascent of Man poster. Brilliant stuff, and I still can’t hear “Mr. Sandman” without remembering a truly demented joke involving a microscope and Simon’s alien sperm.

That’s really all I can say without ruining it, and if you’ve never seen Simon, it did finally get a DVD release a couple years ago.

I do bring all this for a reason, of course.

We’re introduced to the scientists of the thinktank via mockumentary footage. One of the scientists mentions “the Nixon Replacement Project” offhand, and so the documentary narrator asks him about it. “The Nixon who went to China? He was not the same one who came back.”

I’m afraid there is no Obama Replacement Project in the works for us.