Stardust and Silicon

Hollywood send-up brings out the farcical Pacino.


written and directed by Andrew Niccol

with Al Pacino, Rachel Roberts, and Catherine Keener

opens Aug. 23 at Metro, Pacific Place, and others

She's a babe. Not that Dr. Aki Ross wasn't also hot in last year's all-CGI Final Fantasy, don't get me wrong, but Simone's sex appeal goes beyond pixels and bytes into almost flesh-and-blood verisimilitude. How does Simone differ from Aki? Could she threaten— as this amiable minor Hollywood satire suggests—to replace real, temperamental actresses with docile computer-generated performers who work for free? Predictably, Simone's producers are milking some "Is she real or is she virtual?" publicity from their starlet, sending tremors through the acting community.

Well, don't tear up that SAG card just yet. Simone has fun playing with notions of reality and virtuality, but the movie still depends on a fresh-faced ingenue, Canadian model Rachel Roberts, whose image has been digitally tweaked and manipulated by Andrew Niccol (writer-director of Gattaca and screenwriter of The Truman Show). So even if the ads are coy about Simone's actual identity, she works because she's a person—not a program like Aki.

Simone actually begins working for director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), whose pretentious auteurism Simone lampoons along with the credulous, celebrity-crazed public. His latest opus (Sunrise, Sunset) is being undermined by a spoiled diva (Winona Ryder) and a dim-witted leading man (Jay Mohr). Enter a mad scientist type—who conveniently appears and dies with alacrity—to deliver Simone via hard drive, and presto!, she becomes the biggest celeb, and Taransky the biggest director, in the world.

The gorgeous blonde's Garbo-like reclusiveness spawns a self-fueling media frenzy as Taransky orchestrates the hype about his discovery—whom he needs to keep the world from discovering is mere code. On the infotainment circuit, Simone charms TV hosts—via satellite hookup, of course—and worshipfully praises her Svengali. Though Simone is no inside-Hollywood classic like Sunset Boulevard or The Player (lacking the venom or insight of either), the movie has a certain sweet buoyancy that comes from Taransky's desperate charade paralleling Niccol's.

All movies are illusory, in other words, and Simone is doubly about the world going Day of the Locust for an imaginary star and ourselves enjoying the spectacle—which is, of course, a secondary illusion. Taransky finally buckles under his task ("She's killing me! She's taken on a life of her own!"), and Niccol's comedy also gradually succumbs to strain and sloppiness, but both achieve an endearing kind of valor for trying.

Pacino, too, tries very hard in Simone, and it's a welcome shock to see him engaging in farce and physical humor (call it Al Lite). Cast against type as a stumblebum director (the generic Woody Allen role), he deploys his baggy eyes and saggy posture to almost Groucho-like effect. Perpetuating the myth of Simone's existence has Pacino driving with a blond mannequin, donning lipstick, and even speaking through his starlet like a ventriloquist (call it vocal drag).

What finally motivates Taransky's elaborate deceit? Art, baby—it's all about the director's sacrosanct vision. (Part of what makes Simone likable is the sense that Niccol is laughing at himself here.) Locked in a vast, empty soundstage, power-mad Taransky conducts long boozy soliloquies to his cyberstar. He decries live actors "who put themselves above the work, who put themselves above me!" Simone rings truest in these pompous echoes not only of Dr. Frankenstein but of Coppola, Scorsese, and the Hollywood despots of yore. (Brief glimpses of the Taransky oeuvre suggest he's an Antonioni wanna-be of the most insufferable sort.)

Unfortunately, Niccol pads his pithy premise with silly, slapdash subplots. Taransky is faced with debunking by two tabloid hacks (Heavy's Pruitt Taylor Vince and Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman) who are basically in love with the chimerical actress. Meanwhile, Taransky's studio- executive ex (Catherine Keener) feels jealous of Simone, then draws closer to him as a result, much to the satisfaction of their adorable teen daughter. These and other supposedly zany complications merely muddle Simone's showbiz satire. (At the 90-minute mark, I found myself wishing Simone could write as perfectly as she supposedly acts.)

As befits Simone's traditional comedic opposition between appearance and reality, Taransky ultimately tries to return to the latter, but by then it's too late. Like the Hollywood legends whose portraits adorn his office walls, Simone's very image eclipses the integrity of his work. (The lie intended to further his supposedly artistic "truth" turns out to have the greater reality.) Even with an imaginary star, the star system—and all of us implicated in it, readers and writers alike—always reigns supreme.

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