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'Simone' creates strangely believable scenario

| Friday, Aug. 23, 2002

When a satire has as many funny moments as "Simone," you can only wish it had gone further and released the death grip on its security blanket.

The picture sets out to lampoon the film industry, to needle the media and to lance the millions of fans who worship the most synthetic goods, but it has a soft center that diffuses its aim.

It isn't ruined, but it is compromised by its eagerness to be liked and to make the central character a more sympathetic Dr. Frankenstein.

It begins with a dead-on conflict between Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), a middle-aged film director-writer of some integrity, and Nicola (Winona Ryder), a spoiled leading lady quitting his picture over alleged dissatisfaction with the size of her trailer.

Note him trying to pacify her by removing the red candies from a pound of Mike & Ike's. Rock performers and actors notoriously have contract riders demanding such foolish amenities.

When Nicola demands every frame of her footage be removed and the studio opts to sacrifice the movie rather than replace her, Viktor stumbles into a solution supplied by a dying software engineer named Hank (Elias Koteas).

Using software Hank calls Simulation One, or Sim-One, Viktor creates a gorgeous virtual-reality actress named Simone and digitally implants her, via pixels, into his movie, "Sunrise, Sunset."

Simone, by the way, is billed as playing "herself," meaning a CGI (computer-generated image) concoction, but she's also reportedly played in some shots by a model named Rachel Roberts (not to be confused with the fine actress Rachel Roberts who died in 1980).

Simone requires no coddling and threatens no spoilage; she's the one performer committed to the service of the filmmaker's screenplay.

She's an instant international sensation, supposedly made up of qualities culled electronically from actresses such as Audrey Hepburn, Meryl Streep and Lauren Bacall. Simone/Roberts, though, looks for all the world like the late actress-model Dorothy Stratten.

Because Viktor's resuscitated career depends on her and because he obviously can't produce her in person, he builds on her mystique by making her the most elusive celebrity since Greta Garbo. Even the actors co-starring in her second film, "Eternity Forever," never see her.

(There's a basis in reality for this. Joan Crawford lamented all her life that even though she had one of the leads in the blockbuster "Grand Hotel," she never got near co-star Garbo because of a phalanx of buffers.)

History tells us that "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" (2001), the first movie made entirely with human-looking CGI actors, was an expensive box-office bomb, but the makers of "Simone" didn't know that. The former went into release while "Simone" already was in post-production.

A movie like this always has a character who suspects something's amiss and who represents a threat to Viktor's charade. Here it's a shadowy, unsavory character named Max (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who says he even "had something on Mother Theresa, but she died, and it wasn't worth it."

Maybe the film needs Max, but it merely feels compromised by a romantic through line provided by studio head Elaine (Catherine Keener), who is Viktor's sympathetic ex-wife, and their perfect 15-year-old daughter Lainey (Evan Rachel Wood).

The film loses its barbed outlook every time Viktor pauses to woo Elaine and bond with Lainey. It could have used the time to dig deeper into the manufacturing and exploitation of an international icon and the manipulation of the masses drawn so easily to trendy flashpoints.

"Simone" is the handiwork of New Zealand writer-director Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed "Gattaca" and wrote "The Truman Show."

He peppers his picture with inspiration — Simone, for example, singing "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman" on her Splendid Isolation tour. And even though she's not real, she takes on such a life of her own — like HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey" — that Viktor can't kill her off.

All of this makes sense in an era when hype rules and almost everything marketed successfully is pure fantasy.

'Simone'


Director: Andrew Niccol
Stars: Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Pruitt Taylor Vince
MPAA Rating: R, for sensuality
stars

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