Andrew Niccol’s “Simone” attempts to delve beneath the surface of Hollywood’s rampant narcissism and fascination with technology, but ultimately feels like just one more in the long line of films this year about the business of making movies. Pic at least refuses to coddle the intended victims of its venom, but, too esoteric for the masses and too close for comfort for most industryites, “Simone’s” returns look to be as slender as its title character’s computer-created waistline.
When Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder in a cameo) walks off the set of the new film being directed by Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) because her trailer isn’t big enough, Taransky is also sent packing, his unfinished film (entitled “Sunrise, Sunset”) in tow. Taransky is a desperate filmmaker, with some flops behind him and an ex-wife (Catherine Kenner) who’s the head of the studio at which, until recently, he was under contract. Prohibited by Anders’ lawyers from using any of her footage and by the studio from starting over with a new actress, Taransky seems out of options.
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But on cue, a dying computer geek (an unbilled Elias Koteas) has the high tech solution to Taransky’s dilemma: Simone, or Simulation One (or, as the pic’s title would digitally have it, “S1m0ne”), a three-dimensional virtual actress that’s part Audrey Hepburn, part Garbo and all star. (In pic’s closing crawl, a list of more than a dozen other celebrity women are credited with contributing to Simone’s look and sound.) When Taransky, with a little digital magic, removes Anders from “Sunrise, Sunset” and inserts Simone in her place — voila! He has a hit on his hands.
It’s all very tidy, except that Simone has become such an overnight phenomenon Taransky can’t simply reveal his fraud; he has to keep Simone working, making more pictures. And as she becomes a bigger and bigger star, Traransky must go to greater and greater lengths to perpetuate the illusion. While it’s wondrous to behold Pacino in a full-on comic turn, donning lipstick to imprint Simone’s “kisses” on hotel bedsheets, and while some of Niccol’s observations about celebrity mystique are spot-on, the movie nonetheless feels like it should be more fun and freewheeling than it is.
The visual effects that realize Simone, both on Taransky’s computer screen and in his films, are magnificent. In fact, like Niccol’s previous “Gattaca,” “Simone” is a triumph of visual design. Unfortunately, like “Gattaca, it is less noteworthy for what it has to say than the style in which it says it. If pic succeeds at convincing us of Simone’s “existence,” it never fully sells us on the idea of her ensuing superstardom. When we see excerpts from Taransky’s Simone-starring movies, they’re big-budget art pics with dramatically colored lighting schemes and art-deco designs that seem like parodies of Niccol’s own aesthetic. It would seem that “Simone” may have been funnier with less exaggeration of the films being made, so they would seem more like movies Hollywood might actually make.
More problematical, much of “Simone” plays out as a solo show for Pacino, with the actor seated before the large computer console where Taransky brings Simone to “life.” Niccol has scripted a series of dialogues between Taransky and Simone, in which Taransky both poses questions and then, by depressing a button that transforms his voice into Simone’s, answers them. While these scenes are conceptually interesting, and Pacino can be quite funny in them, they never quite work as full-bodied cinema.
And pic’s cleverest notion arrives much too late — about the way the seemingly inanimate Simone takes on a life of her own, so that when Taransky wants to end the charade by simply “deleting” her, he can’t.
Nonetheless, with invaluable contributions from his gifted designer Jan Roelfs and cinematographer Ed Lachman, “Simone’s” imposing facades and diagonal compositions, bathed in lime-green and amber hues, are magnificent. And with Pacino playing Taransky as a sort-of latter-day directorial Norma Desmond — a visionary auteur staring down middle-age — Simone is less of a star than a means to deliver a cautionary, albeit jumbled, message.