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Ambitious 'Simone' conjures up virtual actress to satirize Hollywood

Friday, August 23, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

If Hollywood hated "The Truman Show" for depicting television as a medium that would eagerly manipulate a man's life for entertainment purposes (two years before the current reality craze began with "Survivor"), wait until it gets a load of "Simone."


RATING: PG-13 for some sensuality.

PLAYERS: Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Rachel Roberts, Jay Mohr.

DIRECTOR: Andrew Niccol.

WEB SITE: www.s1m0ne.com


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It is a fitfully funny satire about the artificial nature of celebrity that tries too hard, thumping after horseflies where a well-aimed swat would suffice. Still, I would rather have a movie try too hard than not at all, like much of the pre-chewed swill emerging from the big studios these days.

"Simone" has nothing if not ambition, even if it does revisit many of the themes writer-director Andrew Niccol introduced in his screenplay for "The Truman Show," a movie of rare brilliance that was directed by Peter Weir. "Simone" also sounds echoes of "Wag the Dog" and "Being There."

Al Pacino plays Viktor Taransky, a director whose last three films bombed. His ex-wife, Elaine (Catherine Keener), runs the studio where he works, and the star of his current, almost-completed project (Winona Ryder) walks out in a hissy fit over the size of her trailer. No one else will take the role in what looks like a career-killing project.

Elaine wants to pull the plug, but Viktor meets a dying man (an uncredited Elias Koteas) with a hard drive containing a program for a virtual actress whom Viktor dubs Simone, short for Simulation One. This computer-generated performer will never complain, make demands or refuse a nude scene. If the director wants to change her appearance, he can. And she'll give precisely the performance he wants, every single time.

So, as in "The Truman Show," a director plays God. This time, he is almost literally the creator -- Simone's movie debuts, significantly, nine months after Viktor obtains her program. It is not likely a coincidence that she bears some resemblance to Viktor's daughter, Lainie (Evan Rachel Wood), who is an avid computer user.

But Simone becomes a screen idol far beyond Viktor's expectations. Movie audiences appear to worship her and, like Garbo, she has an air of mystery. Obviously, she can't make personal appearances or even perform in a scene with other actors (she gets dubbed in later). Viktor makes her out to be some kind of recluse and, when pressure from the tabloids and studio executives becomes too great, he manufactures clever means by which Simone can meet her public.

(Simone plays herself, according to the credits, but by all accounts she is actually a combination of computer imagery and a model named Rachel Roberts. Wonder if she complained about the billing.)

The movie makes valid and often funny if not always original points about how easily the public can be fooled, the ephemeral nature of celebrity, the venality of the movie industry and how even our most perfect creations can spin out of our control. All proper Frankenstein's monsters, even beautiful ones, take on lives of their own, and Simone is no exception.

Niccol gives us numerous scenes of Viktor sitting at his giant computer screen manipulating Simone, talking to Simone, putting his own words in her mouth and having her mimic his gestures until the line is blurred between creator and created. There is a certain fascination to this, but the scenes are inherently uncinematic and even preachy when Viktor rants on about the industry and the pouty unreliability of actors. The movie may be too inside for general audiences.

Viktor is not immune to Niccol's satiric touch -- his Simone movies look like the most pretentious European trash art of the 1960s. Pacino keeps him busy, perhaps to disguise the fact there really isn't much of a character there -- why else would he fold so easily into Simone?

The biggest strike against "Simone" is its own artificiality. Niccol exaggerates for comic effect, but we still have to believe that a ragtag director like Viktor Taransky could manipulate Simone into a superstar while managing to keep anyone from ever meeting her in the flesh. Hell, Steven Spielberg couldn't pull it off. Like the fake war in "Wag the Dog" that even satellite photographs can't seem to disprove, the conceit asks us to suspend too much disbelief.

Then again, Hollywood has debated the possibility of computer-generated actors. Who knows what you can't believe these days?

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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