Too many hats topple `Simone'

Director's message, fresh in `Truman,' is retread here

Movie Reviews

August 23, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

*

Simone sets itself an impossible goal. Then doesn't achieve it.

That might seem like a tough thing to blame a movie for, but writer/director Andrew Niccol set the bar high, not me.

Here's the movie's set-up: Once-flourishing film director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) has hit rock-bottom. His last few movies have tanked, his egomaniacal star (played with discomfiting relish by Winona Ryder) has walked off his latest picture, no other actress is willing to work with him, and the studio (in the person of his ex-wife, played by Catherine Keener) has kicked him off its lot.

Just when all appears lost, a dying computer genius (Elias Koteas) accosts Taransky out of the darkness and makes him the most unlikely of pitches. Seems he's figured out how to make the perfect actress out of nothing but pixels. Desperate, Taransky decides to give the Simulation One program a try.

Faster than you can say "Eureka!" a star is born. The mysterious Simone becomes the hit of Hollywood, the most glamorous, most talented actress ever to hit the screen. Taransky's film (titled Sunrise, Sunset) becomes a major hit, and Simone becomes a multimedia star of unprecedented proportions.

Of course, there's a problem: there is no Simone, just Taransky pushing buttons and providing dialogue that's electronically manipulated to sound like the cross between Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez that Simone is supposed to represent.

Determined to hide his little sleight-of-mouse, Taransky invents a life for his creation. Simone is so devoted to her art, you see, that she never grants in-person interviews, never appears in public - in fact, she never even interacts with her co-stars, preferring to work with Taransky alone, and later have the other actors placed in the scenes electronically. "I just find I relate better to people when they're not actually there," she helpfully explains.

Hollywood being the shallow place it is, no one ever really questions Simone's methods; for a while, things work just fine, and people are willing to overlook her eccentricities. But soon, the demand for someone to actually meet Simone becomes overwhelming; what's the good of having a big star on the studio payroll if the bigwigs can't do lunch with her?

Taransky, too, is feeling overshadowed by his creation, and would like nothing better than to escape from Simone's shadow. But how's he supposed to do that, when she's all the public - not to mention his studio bosses - want?

Think about all this for a second, and you'll probably see the crater-sized pitfall awaiting this film: Simone has got to be the most amazing thing ever to appear on a theater screen. She's got to be Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe wrapped into one.

Not surprisingly, the Simone on-screen here (Canadian model Rachel Roberts, with some computer enhancement) doesn't quite live up to that billing. She's pretty, but in a fairly typical glamour-model way: thick lips, golden hair, sunken cheekbones. And her acting is strictly standard stuff, emoting that just oozes with strained sincerity and by-the-book sultriness.

Simone, however, is just the most obvious problem with Simone. Niccol, who did the script for 1998's The Truman Show, is revisiting the same themes here - manipulated reality, artifice masquerading as art, the willingness of the media to deceive the public, without any thought of the moral or ethical repercussions. But what seemed fresh four years ago seems like little more than a retread today.

Perhaps more importantly, there was a real quandary at the center of The Truman Show, a battle between the helpless victim (Jim Carrey's Truman) and shameless manipulator (Ed Harris' Christof) that provided audiences with a genuine rooting interest. There's nothing like that here; Pacino's Taransky is stuck in a mess of his own making, and it's hard to quell the feeling that, if he just came clean about what he's done, his career would go nowhere but up.

There are some good lines in Simone, and a few inspired laughs (especially when Taransky tries to deep-six Simone's career by turning her into an auteur whose first directing effort has her working alongside pigs - the real ones, from which we get pork). But how many movies do we need where the filmmakers point out what an insincere, superficial and laughably absurd place Hollywood is? It's nice all these movie types can laugh at themselves and the place that enables them all to pull in those hefty paychecks, but is a screenplay rife with inside jokes about Hollywood really art, or just griping?

It's also unclear just what Niccol wanted this film to be: a satire? a spoof? a black comedy? a pointed social commentary? Perhaps all of the above - way too many hats for a movie this slight to wear.

Pacino's trademark world-weariness works well for Taransky, but is nothing he hasn't done (and we haven't seen) before. And Keener makes an excellent cold-hearted shrew - just as she has in about a dozen other films over the past four years (from Being John Malkovich to Full Frontal). Pruitt Taylor Vince gets off some good licks as a tabloid reporter sniffing around after Simone, but he's not given much to work with.

Then again, that's better than poor Simone. She's given way too much to work with.

Simone

Starring Al Pacino, Catherine Keener

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol

Released by New Line Cinema

Rated PG-13 (language, sensuality)

Time 117 minutes

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