"You're so beautiful," says movie director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), appraising his new leading lady. It sounds like awe. Then again, it may be something quite different. Moving closer to the blond-tressed, luscious-mouthed beauty—or rather, to the screen from which she emanates—he adds, "You're too beautiful. We're going to fix that." Seizing the latest means of film production, a computer keyboard, Viktor places a small blemish on Simone's pristine cheek and proclaims, too self-satisfied by half, "A star is digitized."
You can hardly blame him for wanting to recalibrate the balance of power between auteur and actor. Before Viktor begins animating his virtual star with his own electronically altered voice, his own ideas, his own kudos to himself, we meet him on the lot of Amalgamated Studios. Stooped over a crafts-service table, he's sorting Mike & Ikes like a man with obsessive-compulsive disorder. What he has, in fact, is an implacable starlet. Viktor is on an impossible mission: to salvage his film—and his career—by giving his leading lady what she wants. But Nicola Anders, played by Winona Ryder, has already found a thousand ways in which the director and the studio are in breach of contract. "It's not the size of the role," Nicola says, building on a famous thespian saw as she eyes with disdain an Airstream that would have given Ahab pause. "It's the size of the trailer."
When his star walks off the picture, Viktor gets canned by the studio chief, Elaine Christian, who happens to be his former wife and the mother of his sage teenage daughter, Lainey (Evan Rachel Wood). Catherine Keener, true to form, infuses Elaine with tangy, metallic exasperation. Her movie exec is equal parts knowingness and know-nothingness, a personality type all too common in Simone's Hollywood. One of writer/director/producer Andrew Niccol's more spot-on jokes has the editor of a celebrity rag certain he knows what's amiss with Taransky and his reclusive star. He doesn't. But then, no one is particularly honorable or authentic in Simone—except Simone by default and Lainey, who offers a nice rebuke to the usual complaint that the real people to blame for dream-factory dreck are folks between the ages of 12 and 20.
One night, as Viktor is packing his car trunk with junk from his office, techno geek Hank Areno (Elias Koteas, wearing a patch over one eye and a glomming pathos on his sleeve) creeps up behind him. They met at a Future of Film conference, Hank reminds him, at which Hank's paper titled "Who Needs Humans?" was not well-received. Viktor is freaked out by this sad sack of a Cyclops—though more because of Hank's cloying need for human contact than for his ability to twist a compliment into the following demented, fundamentally narcissistic claim: "You're the only filmmaker with the artistic integrity to realize my vision." Then, when Hank dies, Viktor finds himself heir to the coded disk for Simulation One, or Sim One, or Simone. "NINE MONTHS LATER," the intertitle reads. . . .
While its namesake may be flawless, Niccol's Simone is not without its imperfections. Chief among them: it's hard to believe that Simone's star could shine quite so incandescently through the quasi-Euro-gloom of Viktor's ponderous oeuvre. With names like Sunrise, Sunset and Eternity Forever,his flicks look painterly and utterly interminable. But such suspicions do little to mar the movie's appeal.
The Niccol-penned The Truman Show delivered darkness visible in the blazing light of a manufactured day. Gattaca, written and directed by Niccol, located need and emotional thaw amid a futuristic chill. Likewise, there is at once pleasing and nagging ambiguity at work in and around Simone. This satire about a computer-generated celeb who takes the world by storm means to chasten a culture run amok with celeb adoration. Yet with New Line positioning the digitized star on parent company AOL/Time Warner's site, Niccol's intentions get caught up in the confounding Mbius strip of pop culture as we are living it. It's hard to state with absolute conviction whether this marketing barrage subverts Niccol's point—or buttresses it.
"We all know synthespians are coming," Niccol predicts in his production notes. Ironically, Niccol is rumored to have gleaned the idea for Simone watching Final Fantasy, that impressive yet impossibly earnest portfolio of CGI-crafted humans. "Very soon, we will reach a point when we switch on a television or a computer, see an actor or newscaster, and not know if they are flesh and blood and what's more . . . not care."
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"If a performance is genuine," Viktor philosophizes, "does it matter if the actor is real?" "We've become bored with actors giving us phony emotions," intoned Ed Harris' Cristof, the creator of the 24/7 Truman Show. Niccol's characters in Simone also spout tart observations about acting. Meanwhile, the director works beautifully with his cast. As Viktor, Pacino is haggard and anxious, ridiculous and sympathetic, a study in waning hubris and waxing desperation. His hysteria does not radiate; it implodes in a downward spiral. When Viktor scrunches down in the passenger seat of his Bentley, trying to make it appear as though a bewigged mannequin is driving, he has hit bottom.
How difficult it becomes for Viktor to fess up once the lie of Simone has taken on a life of its own is utterly believable. How far he will go to perpetuate the fraud—and then end it—produces genuine laughs. Of course, the problem is not Simone's shallow, encoded roots. The bugaboo is the worshipful industry that congeals around the belief that she is flesh and blood. As Viktor's ultrareasonable daughter tells him, "We're fine with fake as long as you don't lie about it."
Over the past few weeks, there has been something of a convoy in op-ed pieces bemoaning the bad faith and fraudulent tics of popular film. It must be summer. In Simone, Niccol gives audiences a very amusing puzzle about authenticity, fraud, and the uses and abuses of technology. That is a fine and funny feat. The very folks responsible for our obsession with celebrity will likely love it. And in loving it, they will no doubt let themselves off the hook.
Simone was written, directed and produced by Andrew Niccol; and stars Al Pacino, Catherine Keener and Evan Rachel Wood. Now playing countywide.