On paper, “Simone” has many things going against it. After logging considerable time on the studio shelf (it bears an unadjusted 2001 copyright) New Line has given the film a minimally-promoted dead-of-August release date, which doesn’t exactly set the expectations soaring. Neither does the prospect of watching Al Pacino intensely bellow his way through a comedy.
But there’s one factor in the equation that is easy to overlook, and that’s the presence of writer-director Andrew Niccol, who was behind the intriguing sci-fi drama “Gattaca” and, most notably, earned an Oscar nod for writing Peter Weir’s highly-regarded The Truman Show. Niccol brings the wit of the latter and the intelligent imagination of both to what could have easily been a tired satire of Hollywood and celebrity. After a temperamental A-list actress (Winona Ryder, in a delicious cameo role) walks off of his latest project, less-than-successful director Viktor Taransky (Pacino) replaces her with a digitally-created starlet, Simone (played by, as the credits jokingly state, “herself”–though she’s largely embodied by model Rachel Roberts). What begins as a simple statement against celebrity egotism snowballs into something larger when Simone’s “performance” earns her huge acclaim and even bigger stardom, and suddenly Taransky is forced to perpetuate the illusion that Simone is an actual person.
Granted, the basic premise takes a certain amount of disbelief suspension to swallow, but the actors make it fairly easy to go along with the ride. Pacino, not one known to be terribly light on his feet, delivers a nimble and uncharacteristically reined-in performance that generates both laughs and genuine sympathy for his character’s unusual plight. Catherine Keener’s characteristically caustic turn as Viktor’s ex-wife and studio head has its been-there, done-that quality, but it works well here, plus she has a winning rapport with Pacino and Evan Rachel Wood, who plays their daughter. Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman also have their amusing moments as a couple of celebrity magazine reporters obsessed with the hot new starlet–who herself makes a striking impression. Roberts may not exactly be deserving of all of the hosannas Simone receives in the film, but she definitely holds her own among the seasoned pros and has a natural magnetism that makes her character’s sudden superstardom believable.
But the one who makes the whole of “Simone” believable and quite enjoyable is Niccol. The jabs he takes at the movie industry, the media, and the otherworldly nature of celebrity may sometimes fall on the obvious side, but they do pack some snarky sting in the context of his clever storyline. The film does lose steam in the home stretch with Niccol serving up some dialogue that is too on-the-button (such as a line where Viktor lays bare all his reasons for creating Simone) and some mechanical plot twists that are less than surprising. On the whole, however, with “Simone” Niccol makes what seems like a preposterous idea not only fresh and entertaining, but most of all reveals said idea to be not at all far removed from reality–as any good satire should.