A scene from 'Simone'
Courtesy Photo
** stars 117 minutes | Rated: PG-13
Opened: Friday, August 16, 2002
Written & directed by Andrew Niccol

Starring Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Evan Rachel Wood, Jay Mohr, Winona Ryder, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Schwartzman, Elias Koteas, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Rachel Roberts (uncredited, as the physical basis for Simone)

Read our interview with Andrew Niccol Interview with writer-director Andrew Niccol
Jason Schwartzman (2002)


Not worth paying for, but as a curiosity on HBO or Showtime, it might be worth watching while channel-surfing.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 01.21.2003


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Synthetic 'actress' saves the career of a washed-up director in pretentious farce 'S1m0ne'

By Rob Blackwelder

Beneath the uncanny, inevitable and seemingly shrewd facade of the movie-biz farce "Simone" -- about a computer-generated actress taking Hollywood by storm because nobody knows she's not real -- lies a plot cobbled together from largely flat and uncreative moments.

The brainchild of inventive and otherworldly writer-director Andrew Niccol ("Gattaca," "The Truman Show" screenplay), who plucked the picture's concept out of the film industry's paranoid collective subconscious, "Simone" stars Al Pacino as Viktor Taransky, a washed-up and somewhat neurotic director whose last chance at making a big studio film has just walked off the set along with his petulant leading lady (Winona Ryder in a cameo).

But just as he envisions his career going off a cliff, a dying wacko computer genius and Taransky fan (Elias Koteas) brings the director a computer hard drive containing the culmination of his life's work: a program that creates a near-perfect, completely malleable, realistic simulation of beautiful girl. Called Simone (a contraction of Simulation One), in the confines of a computer she can walk, talk, flirt and cry with a single keystroke. She has a database of famous actresses' best performances to draw from for mannerisms and moods. She's utterly at Taransky's control and, of course, her fabricated "performances" can be digitally inserted into any scene of his movie, any way he chooses.

He secretly uses Simone to complete his imperiled project, which becomes a huge success and makes an international sensation of his synthetic star -- but Taransky's ego won't allow him to admit she doesn't exist. Soon he's riding his creation's coattails to fame, fortune and a three-picture deal, all the while digging himself deeper and deeper into his deception.

Niccol delights in toying with the ramifications of this not-so-secret nightmare of movie actors in the age of ever-advancing computer-generated characters. But "Simone" is perceptibly lacking the kind of complex, wholly encompassing milieu that the writer-director created for his earlier pictures. Broken down scene by scene, the film is a stale, over-acted satire driven by stereotypes as fake as the film's title character, and Niccol conspicuously skips over what should be the story's most interesting episodes.

After introducing Taransky to the Simone interface, which he keeps locked up tight in a big, empty sound stage, Niccol uses news reports and magazine covers as hackneyed shorthand to jump ahead nine months. Suddenly Taransky is high on his movie's success and the "mysterious," "talented" blonde beauty Simone is the talk of town.

Most of the movie consists of prosaic old sitcom-style gags revolving around Taransky trying to maintain The Big Lie. "She's a computer...addict!" he fabricates to someone who gets inside the stage (empty save Taransky's computer console) where he and Simone supposedly make their magic. "She's extremely agoraphobic," he says later, when pressured by his studio head ex-wife (Catherine Keener) about why Simone is never seen in public.

When starting another picture -- a self-indulgent art film he couldn't have gotten a green light on without Simone set to star -- he introduces his creation to his cast via speakerphone, then runs across the backlot to program her voice with his own as the actors chat. "I relate better to people when they're not there," Simone says via Taransky speaking into a microphone on his computer.

Everyone in the movie is easily and overly impressed with Simone's "talent" and just takes it at face value that this new superstar is reclusive, dedicated and eccentric. Even when Taransky confesses to his ex-wife, she reacts like some "Three's Company" character, dubiously asking, "How much have you had to drink, Viktor? You didn't make her. She made you."

In this, his first comedy ever, poor Al Pacino spends a third of his screen time having to act against a computer monitor, having frustrated conversations with himself as his creation becomes a monster that consumes his life.

"Here I was trying to convince the whole world you existed, when what I really wanted was to convince them I exist," Taransky mopes as Niccol lets this comedy cross the line into pretentiousness. "It's not that you aren't human. It's that I am."

Ironically, Niccol makes plenty of jokes about self-important cinema ("These films are speaking to the human condition," Taransky claims of his work) while being guilty of the same sins and worse. Does Taransky really need a wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, also in this week's "Little Secrets") spouting perfect-child dialogue like "I don't want a car, Dad. I want the old Viktor Taransky back."

"Simone" is basically a one-joke movie about the shallowness of the Hollywood system and the movie-going public that have made superstars of untalented performers for years. This story just takes it to the extreme: Simone is lifeless both literally and figuratively. (What little we see of her movies proves her to be artificial in every sense of the word.)

The far-fetched, Catch-22 last act, in which a desperate and slightly mad Taransky attempts ruin Simone's career and get this monkey off his back, also takes the movie's themes to an extreme, requiring far more suspension of disbelief than Niccol earns with the stylish but pallid story the precedes it.

For the record, Niccol did not actually generate Simone in a computer for the movie, but she is computer-enhanced. An uncredited Canadian actress named Rachel Roberts provides the physical basis for the character, which was manipulated with different physical traits and vocal elements.


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