Director: Andrew Niccol
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
Stars: Al Pacino (Viktor Taransky), Catherine Keener (Elaine Christian), Evan Rachel Wood (Lainey Christian), Jason Schwartzman (Milton), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Max Sayer), Winona Ryder (Nicola Anders), Jay Mohr (Hal Sinclair ), Rachel Roberts (Simone), Daniel von Bargen (Chief Detective)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2002
Country: USA

Although it springs from a clever and timely idea, Simone is a media satire that ultimately lacks bite. Taking aim at everyone from spoiled Hollywood actors, to investigative reporters, to an insatiable audience that is all too easily fooled into worshiping that which doesn't exist, writer/director Andrew Niccol constructs targets so broad that, even when he hits them, you don't feel much of an effect.

Niccol seems to be obsessed with stories that hinge on the desperate human desire for absolute control. In his directorial debut, 1997's Gattaca, he created a dystopian futuristic world in which everyone's lives were determined by their genetics. In his screenplay for The Truman Show (1998), he used the ultimate reality-TV scenario to show how we are all essentially like Truman Burbank, trapped in a media-saturated world controlled by a powerful few. In Simone, he goes inside the movie industry in an attempt to show the ridiculous nature by which entertainment is manufactured, showing it to be, more than anything, about control.

Al Pacino stars as Viktor Taransky, an uncompromising director who has had three flops in a row and is still employed by his studio only because his still-caring ex-wife, Elaine Christian (Catherine Keener), is the studio head. Taransky considers himself a visionary who is constantly stymied by the fact that movie stars now run the industry with their outrageous salaries, ridiculous perks, and ironclad contracts. Although he was never a part of it, Taransky wishes for the vaunted Studio Era days when stars were under the thumb of controlling directors who told them what to wear, what to eat, where to go, and what to say.

Serendipity strikes in the form of a crazed scientist (an uncredited Elias Koteas) who leaves his ultimate invention to Taransky: A computer interface called Simulation One that creates a "synthespian," a completely digital actor that Taransky can control absolutely. Thus, instead of having to shelve his dream project, an art-house romance called Sunrise Sunset when the temperamental star (Winona Ryder) walks off the set and threatens to sue if she appears in the final print, Taransky simply replaces her with his new digital creation, a striking blonde supermodel-actress he names Simone (embodied by digitally enhanced newcomer Rachel Roberts).

The twist in the story is that Taransky eventually loses control of Simone because she gets to be too big to handle. Her fame and popularity skyrocket to stratospheric proportions, all of which is fueled by the fact that Simone is "reclusive" and "secretive" and no one ever actually sees her except Taransky. Even the other actors with whom she supposedly works have to accept that does all her acting in private and is then digitally inserted in the scenes. Of course, no one but Taransky knows that Simone consists of nothing more than 1s and 0s in a computer, which leads to some outlandish scenarios in which he must go to great length to create the appearance of her existence. This includes tricks as low-tech as holding a Barbie doll in front of a lamp to create a silhouette in a hotel window and as high-tech as using holographic technology to make it appear as though Simone is singing on stage at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Like Niccol's previous works, Simone has at its core a great and timely idea, as the notion of computer-generated actors is already a reality and the demarcation between the corporeal and the digital is slowly eroding away as special effects become more plentiful and more convincing. Movies are about illusion, but the one thing that always kept them grounded was the participation of flesh-and-blood actors who lived real lives off-screen. Our fascination with movie stars dates back to the 1910s and has only increased in intensity and absurdity with the advent of the information age.

Yet, even though it touches on all of these issues, Simone never feels as prescient or probing as Niccol likely intended it to be. If anything, it feels too mainstream for its own good, as Niccol aims for the broad side of the barn and seems to think that hitting it is an accomplishment. All too often, Simone forgoes its comedy of ideas for silly slapstick, such as the ludicrous scene in which Taransky tries to convince Elaine that Simone exists by putting a mannequin in the front seat of his car. It's a silly sight gag to begin with, but it stretches credulity to the breaking point that Elaine would fall for the ruse.

The other problem with Simone is Simone herself. Niccol really did the film a disservice by selecting an actress with such banal beauty. Canadian model Rachel Roberts is certainly gorgeous, and we are meant to believe that she is an amalgam of every great actress ever, from Garbo to Bacall to Streep. Yet, Simone never projects the kind of aura that leads to the cultish fascination that the best and most stunning Hollywood actresses acquire. Rather, she looks like she belongs in a Revlon ad, and Taransky's God-complex-fueled control over her every move becomes less involving as we realize that this digital marionette puppet wouldn't inspire even half of the fascination the film credits to her. Of course, that could be part of the satire, Niccol's way of poking fun at how narrow the typical U.S. perception of female beauty is, but it still makes for a less-than-compelling star.

Of course, the movie does have its moments, and Niccol nails a couple of scenes just right. Having Simone sing "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman" during her concert is a funny, if obviously sarcastic, comment on her unnatural existence, and he has a good time when Taransky tries belatedly to sabotage Simone's career by putting her in a pretentious Euro-arthouse flick called I Am Pig. Of course, the movies we are meant to believe make Simone so famous, including a brooding modernist melodrama with the silly name of Eternity Forever, look just as pretentious, which makes one wonder where Niccol thinks his own film fits.

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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