Friday, August 16, 2002


Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) is a struggling Hollywood director whose spoiled star has just walked off his movie. The studio, convinced that he’ll never get another big name to replace her, pressures him to shelve the picture and tells him it’ll be his last. But Taransky stumbles onto another option: a computer-synthesized actress who looks and sounds however he wants her to, does whatever he asks, and makes no demands of her own. He names her Simone (short for Simulation One) and shoehorns her into his movie in place of the departed diva. A star is born.

Let’s take a moment to daydream about what a writer and director with a light touch and a gift for social satire—Preston Sturges, say, or Howard Hawks—might have done with a premise like that.

Now wake up and brace yourself for Simone.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol’s earlier movies, Gattaca and The Truman Show, both featured clever premises, interesting lead roles, and good acting. Truman also benefited from the guidance of director Peter Weir, a master at capturing life's mysteries on celluloid. But the worlds Niccol created were as one-dimensional as painted backdrops, and his scripts skittered over the surface of the Big Questions they raised (genetic engineering and our unhealthy fascination with “reality” TV, respectively) like those bugs that walk on water.

Simone makes those two look deep. A screed against fakery that founders on its own lack of conviction, it lurches from serious slapstick to broadly satirical, with a jog in the direction of Hitchcockian mistaken-identity chills toward the end. And the love story it tosses into the mix, a stop-and-start romance between Taransky and his ex-wife Elaine (Catherine Keener), is simply preposterous.

As the blithely materialistic studio head who fired Taransky, Keener plays her part for laughs, creating a likeable villain who made it on looks, unshakeable self-confidence, and a cheerily coldblooded commitment to success. Her character is fun to watch, but she doesn’t belong in the same movie, let alone the same love scenes, as Pacino, who plays his part with barely a glint of humor. Now and then he emotes, in hammy Scent of a Woman style, and there’s a nice sense of play in the way he mimes Simone’s expressions and gestures. But most of the time he just plods through the movie, looking exhausted and occasionally perplexed by the goings-on around him.

The movie’s internal logic is inconsistent, too. If Taransky doesn’t know anything about computers, how does he figure out how to make movies with a simulated actress—and later turn her into a hugely popular recording star—without any help? Considering all the people who work on a studio film and all the gossip that leaks from the set during a shoot, how is it that no one so much as suspects that Simone isn’t real?

Simone does get in a few jabs at show business. Viktor’s movies look familiarly pretentious with their yellow- or blue-toned scenes, portentous dialogue, and symbolic imagery. The uncredited actress who plays Simone projects a glossy perfection and perpetual perkiness that evokes hyphenate personalities like Jennifer Lopez. And it’s mildly amusing to hear about Simone’s “goodwill tour of the Third World” or to see her, holographically projected onto a concert stage, singing “Natural Woman” to a stadium of adoring fans.

But most of the time, Simone tries to flatter us into feeling like savvy insiders with tired stuff like a star’s tantrums over the size of her trailer or the rant of a tabloid editor who brags that he “had something on Mother Theresa once, but then she died.”

What’s worse, the movie has almost nothing to say about the dilemma it poses—the fact that, as Viktor puts it, “our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it.” Instead, it degenerates into the story of a midlife crisis. When financial success doesn’t make him happy, Viktor realizes that he feels overshadowed by his own creation. He made a star of Simone, he decides, “to convince the world that I exist”—but fame and fortune aren’t important. What really matters is the love of his flesh-and-blood ex-wife and daughter.

That’s an awfully flabby wrap-up for a promising premise. Never mind Sturges and Hawkes; even Viktor Taransky could do better.

Written for TimeOFF