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Simone   C

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Andrew Niccol
Writer: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Evan Rachel Wood, Rachel Roberts, Elias Koteas, Winona Ryder.

Review by Rob Vaux

I read a science fiction novel a few months ago about a future candidate for president who doesn't actually exist. He never shows himself in public, delivers all his debates and speeches via satellite, and even appears before the Senate as a projected hologram. It's a brilliant premise that -- with a little tweaking -- could turn from an Orwellian political treatise into a brilliant satire on our obsessions with public personae. Considering the overwhelming response to such feeble media wraiths as Britney Spears (and indeed, truly nonexistent "celebrities" such as Lara Croft), the idea of a computer generated performer taking the world by storm has eerie credibility. Simone, a Pygmalion-esque comedy about just such a performer, would appear to be the movie for the job. Unfortunately, it can't properly manage its wonderful conceit, and proves ultimately too timid to make the impression it really should.

The name "Simone" is short for Simulation One, a virtual actress designed by a dying computer programmer (Elias Koteas) to replace actual performers. She has everything a director could want: perfect delivery, infinite range, no entourage or perks, and an absolute willingness to do exactly as she's told. The programmer wills his creation to a struggling director named Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), who inserts her into his latest film when his bitchy star (Winona Ryder) quits. The movie becomes a smash, and suddenly his virtual leading lady is the only thing on everyone's mind. All he has to do to reap untold riches (and have a surefire star for all his films) is keep up the facade.

Director Andrew Niccol has the cards stacked against him a bit, given that Simone is at least the third film satirizing Hollywood this year. Despite that, his notions are very strong, and the movie has elements of a first-rate comedy within it. He could have gone in any of a hundred directions, each one with the bottomless potential. The best parts of Simone begin to realize that richness, when we feel we might be in the presence of something very special. But it never lasts. Every time we think Simone is getting interesting, it lurches back to the homogenized center, pulling its punches when it should be taking no prisoners. The results suck the life out of the humor, filling in the gaps with a milquetoast farce as Taransky attempts to juggle Simone's success while reconciling with his estranged family (Evan Rachel Wood, very precocious, and Catherine Keener, who really needs to find a new shtick).

Pacino doesn't do comedy much, though he can be quite good at it in the right role. Here, however, he feels lost and tentative, playing more to his needs as a thespian that his obligation to the audience. There are many scenes with Taransky alone with Simone, manipulating her image to suit his needs and speaking her lines into a microphone. Like so much else, the notion is ripe for some brilliant psychological probing, but Niccol just lets the opportunity slide. Instead we're treated to long minutes of Pacino getting in touch with his feminine side, which isn't as unpleasant as it sounds, but neither is it particularly compelling.

Indeed, Simone herself is never particularly compelling: a bland, waifish amalgamation with about as much personality as a soda cracker. Presumably, that's part of the joke, but it stretches even modest credibility to assume that anyone might go this berserk over such a monumentally uninteresting figure. When Simone develops a multi-platinum singing career -- apparently based on covers of old Aretha Franklin songs ("You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman," nudge-nudge) -- you know the film has lost its way. Taransky's increasingly desperate attempts to pass off Simone as a genuine person wouldn't fool a five-year-old, and Niccol seems to feel more comfortable with gentle pratfalls than the sharp, biting jabs that are just waiting to be had. He's done some fine work in this vein: The Truman Show, which he scripted, hits all the notes that Simone misses, and his little-seen Gattaca makes some sharp points about perception and identity. Here he simply loses his nerve, opting for the safe and sedate when bold leaps are called for. There are some very strong ideas in this material, waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, it will take a film braver than Simone to do it.

Review published 08.25.2002.

* * *

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