Name a More Iconic Duo My World of Flops Case File #134 /My Year of Flops II #31 Simon Sez (1999)
When you reach a certain level of fame and notoriety, people and organizations with money begin thinking and talking about putting you in movies whether a leap to the big screen makes sense or not. That’s how people like Evel Knievel, Jerry Springer, Carrot Top and The Unknown Comic all ended up starring in movies in angry violation of God’s will. That’s also how Dennis Rodman starred in a pair of vehicles from the late 1990s.
Rodman was fascinatingly, bizarrely miscast as a wisecracking arms dealer prone to making nonsensical basketball references opposite a coked out of his gourd Jean-Claude Van Damme and a steroids-powered Mickey Rourke in Tsui Hark’s gloriously batshit action 1997 melodrama Double Team.
The film was a huge flop despite a climax where a heroic Coca-Cola vending machine saves the day by protecting our heroes from a potentially deadly blast yet a mere two years later a forgetful film industry decided it would give The Worm a second chance to wow audiences as the next top action hero in 1999’s Simon Sez.
The globe-trotting buddy comedy was supposed to pair Rodman with a young actor and quintessential survivor as notorious for his Olympian capacity for self-destruction and drug abuse as his extraordinary, undeniable creative genius. He’s an actor who would go on to become the top paid movie star in the world, commanding something in the ballpark of seventy-five million dollars for his latest film.
I’m speaking of course about Robert Downey Jr., whose life and career were going so terribly a mere two decades ago that he accepted the role of Dennis Rodman’s wisecracking comic relief sidekick knowing that his name and that of the North Korea-loving professional eccentric would be at the top of the call sheet each morning, and his Oscar-nominated name wouldn’t necessarily be the one on top.
Fortunately/unfortunately for the future Iron Man icon, Downey Jr. dropped out of the project not long before shooting was to begin, possibly due to insurance reasons. It’s both expensive and tricky securing insurance for actors with histories of very public drug abuse like Downey Jr.
The producers were in a dilly of a pickle. First of all, they were a making a Dennis Rodman vehicle. That alone ensured failure. But just as everyone was settling in to see what kind of magic Robert Downey Jr. and Dennis Rodman would make onscreen together Downey Jr left the equation.
The desperate production couldn’t find anyone halfway decent to replace Downey Jr. on short notice so they ended up casting a pre-stardom Dane Cook in the co-starring role of Nick Miranda, a bungling con artist who once matriculated with Dennis Rodman’s character Simon at Langley in CIA spy school around the same time despite Cook’s character clearly being a decade younger than his ostensible colleague and as bad at spy stuff as Simon is preternaturally gifted.
Every time a gun comes into Nick’s possession he looks at it with a cartoonishly exaggerated look of bewilderment and confusion, as if he’s somehow never even encountered a gun before, that he legitimately could not tell you what it is or does.
For example, at one point during a fight with a sleek female operative, Ricky taunts, “You got moves? I got MOVES! Don’t let me get all Jurassic on your ass!” At that point he begins a very involved, very elaborate impersonation of a Tyrannosaurus rex, complete with growls and an involved pantomime of a dinosaur’s body language and movements. This is of course gives the person he’s fighting time to kick him in the chest and take the suitcase containing the movie’s MacGuffin.
If he’d used his gun rather than waste fifty seconds pretending to be a dinosaur for literally no conceivable reason, he could have saved himself a lot of hassle.
The first rule of Spy School is to never partner up with a man who pretends to be a dinosaur in a moment of crisis. That shit will get you killed. Ricky is unprofessional in other ways as well. When he tries to fake being a successful international espionage agent and Simon tells him that a figure he confidently referred to as a male is in fact a woman Ricky sputters, and, in a dispiritingly 1999 turn of events, tries to get around the error by saying that sure she USED To be a woman but now she’s taking so many hormones and has so many mood swings that now it’s like working for Chewbacca.
Cook-as-Ricky Miranda then does some of his patented brotastic physical comedy as he launches into a Chewbacca roar to Rodman’s clear delight and we’re reminded that these two icons of the Man Cave set are pretty much the human embodiment of Axe Body Spray yet they make for a surprisingly terrible twosome. Rodman and Van Damme were Bogey and Bacall compared to Rodman and Dane Cook.
The Dane Cook of Simon Sez looks and acts like the “Before” version of the once exceedingly popular, widely reviled rock star of stand-up comedy who sold out arenas and inspired the seething hatred of comedy purists both by being a big, physical hack and by stealing itchy butthole jokes from saintly Louis C.K, who wasn’t just a TV star, but rather a poet-philosopher whose peerless art helps us understand what it means to be human. Or so hacks like myself used to think.
Oh, but we all felt so sorry for C.K when that creep Dane Cook borrowed his material without getting the TV auteur’s clear-cut consent and permission beforehand! We thought Cook was the bad guy, the hell in this particular scenario, when it turned out to be a lot more complicated than that.
In a backwards development, Cook starred in an action movie opposite a six foot seven world class athlete and then got into shape, started dressing in black and conducting himself with a panther-like cockiness some found irresistible and sexy and others found obnoxious and insufferable.
Cook hadn’t shed his baby fat here. The tight, flattering black tee shirts that constitute Cook’s stage costume are replaced by pastel button down shirts, deeply hideous sideburns and a hairstyle that goes a long way towards masking his fundamental handsomeness.
Cook rose to superstardom as a good looking, arrogant, buff dude women desired and men envied but his sputtering, clammy, flopsweat-drenched performance here is almost perversely devoid of confidence, let alone cockiness. He’s working up a sweat trying to invest laughter and life into a bloated spy comedy and failing miserably in the process.
He’s not alone. In Simon Sez, seemingly everyone in the cast other than Rodman is trying to single-handedly save this turkey though manic improvisation, desperate ad-libbing and attention-grabbing hijinks.
Comedians John Pinette and Ricky Harris join the fruitless yet intense and desperate quest for non-existent laughs as Simon’s other two wacky comic relief sidekicks, a pair of high-tech “Cyber Monks” who do their furtive spy business in catacombs but are mostly concerned with doing a vaudeville-style double act full of groan-inducing one-liners and exhausted pop culture references.
Pinette’s spy nickname is Micro, which is supposed to be funny because Pinette is a very, very large man but his other nickname is “Free Willy” after the 1993 family film on account of whales are very large, like Pinette’s plus-sized, extra-sassy tech guru. Simon Sez is so impressed with a man Pinette’s size calling himself Free Willy that it returns to in its very final line. The final noise we hear is Pinette’s whale impression after regaling Cook’s character with the far-fetched story of how he earned the name Free Willy while going undercover as a male stripper.
Harris is just as unbecomingly thirsty for laughter, no matter how low or insultingly contrived. In a typical bit of comic business when Ricky is in a church by himself asking God for guidance, the two cyber-monks decide to have a little fun with the church’s loudspeaker system by pretending to be God answering the desperate moron’s prayers and forcing the idiot to do the Running Man while shouting “Go God Go!”
That somehow isn’t a cruel enough practical joke so next the Monks present themselves to a terrified and confused Ricky as “Monks of Death” and come at him firing handguns only to reveal that they’re good guys, after all, just total sadists as well.
Simon Sez tries to transform Rodman palatable for the big screen by making everything in the movie as flamboyant and outrageous as its star. That includes a villain in Ashton (Jérôme Pradon) who is a cackling, effete, flamboyant and over-the-top bad guy whose henchmen wear clown make-up and dress like their clothes were stolen from a community theater production of A Clockwork Orange that somehow featured The Joker and his gang as characters as well.
Operatic, insane excess worked shockingly well in Double Team but that movie benefitted from a true auteur in director Tsui Hark and a screenplay that went too far, then just kept on going to singularly surreal and preposterous place. Simon Sez has no overarching creative vision or sense of how best to use Rodman’s unique gifts.
Rodman mostly plays things straight, mechanically delivering painful one-liners like “Now tell me what’s going on before I go Picasso on your ass and re-arrange your face!” during and in between interchangeable fight scenes.
It’s a testament to how over-the-top and excessive Simon Sez is that Dennis Rodman, whose brand is outrageousness and transgression, is the most subdued and restrained performer onscreen at any given moment. Mr. Flamboyant can’t match the kitschy flamboyance of everything around him.
Despite a ten million dollar budget, Simon Sez grossed less than a half million dollars during its American theatrical run and scored a Zero rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was a dead end for Rodman as a movie star and Cook as an action hero. Cook would make plenty of movies in the years ahead and while they’re pretty much all terrible with the exception of Mr. Brooks and Dan in Real Life, they at least do not make the mistake of thinking the best way to use Cook in movies is to have him improvise terribly in the general vicinity of perfunctory action sequences from quirky, gender-bending yet ultimately deeply boring former athletes.
Simon Sez didn’t kill Dennis Rodman’s film career so much as it put the poor thing out of its misery.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Failure
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