In the comedy Simone, the writer of The Truman Show presents us with another showbiz fiction: an actress who's made not of flesh and blood but of ones and zeroes -- a malleable model who's all code and subject to the whims of her programmer. Simone doesn't exist, but she's the biggest star in Hollywood.
Simone has been gathering dust on a shelf for a year, and in that time its premise has been torn to shreds by the likes of Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within, the animated video-game adaptation that bombed at the box office. Turns out audiences like their actors real, not approximated. And Simone is hardly the first film to deal with the manufacturing of movie stars. It's little more than A Star Is Born floating through cyberspace. That Simone is played by a real actress, newcomer Rachel Roberts (coyly uncredited in the press notes), only dilutes the message. Of course the audience will flip over her: She's a real person -- and a real pretty one.
That's not to say Simone doesn't offer a good time. Shove aside its self-righteous agenda and it's a deft kick, bolstered by Al Pacino in a lively performance that doesn't require him to underscore every line with a yowl and every gesture with a spasm. As Viktor Taransky, a washed-up director who's been fired from the studio by his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), Pacino looks beat to hell but seems more alive playing farce than he has for years. He's having a good time, perhaps because he knows there's nothing at stake here. Or maybe he's become such a parody that we can no longer tell the difference between his comic and dramatic performances.
Niccol cast Pacino because the writer-director figured the actor's mere presence would lend weight to his one-joke premise. He believed it would be enough simply to have a great actor denounce Hollywood's "irrational allegiance to flesh and blood." But it's lazy moviemaking; the film never transcends its thesis. You get the movie's intentions fifteen minutes in, around the time Taransky introduces his new star. Simone replaces a petulant actress, played by Winona Ryder without a hint of self-parody, in a film called Sunrise, Sunset. Soon, throngs of worshippers bearing placards that read "One Nation Under Simone" line up at the studio gates. Taransky makes Simone a star, a magazine cover girl and an idol to screaming millions. She's rendered in the image of a thousand movie stars before her, a literal hodgepodge. But she says nothing until Taransky speaks into a microphone. In turn, Simone makes him a viable commodity once more. Got it: They created each other, more or less.
By the time Taransky puts Simone on a stage performing "Natural Woman" to thousands of cheering simpletons without a clue that they're honoring a digital mirage, the movie has lost all shape. We've been here before, in fiction and in fact -- what, after all, is Britney Spears in concert if not a digitally enhanced, augmented, counterfeited and fabricated reproduction of a human being? So, let's see: Audiences are suckers, and movies aren't real. No, really?