In the new movie from the writer of The Truman Show, a studio promotes a computer generated star as though she’s a real person. In reality, precisely the reverse has taken place: New Line Cinema tried to generate publicity by claiming the title character in Simone is a computer creation when, in fact, she’s a real person. Stars and crew were put under gag orders, press materials contained a fabrication about “a French effects house” producing the cinema’s first “synthespian” and a little known Canadian model named Rachel Roberts went unmentioned in the movie’s credits, forbidden even to tell her family she’d scored a part acting with Al Pacino. It’s the dumbest stunt since Sony faked its own film critic.
Unfortunately, the real shame isn’t that all the fuss and foolishness drew attention away from a deserving film but that the latest from director Andrew Niccol doesn’t deserve terribly much attention to begin with. All the New Zealand born writer-director has given us here after all is yet another satire of Hollywood superficiality, the movies’ umpteenth meditation on modern society’s obsession with celebrity. Not only has the filmmaker elected to address some extremely well worn themes, he evidently has little new to say about them.
Pacino gamely tackles the role of an over the hill auteur who makes movies so artsy they look like Calvin Klien commercials. He’s so washed up he’s cut loose by his long time studio and it’s run by his own ex-wife (Catherine Keener). Lucky for him, a nut in a trenchcoat runs up to him moments later and announces that he’s created the software for a virtual actress so lifelike audiences won’t be able to tell she’s an illusion.
A temperamental starlet played by Winona Ryder has just walked off the set of his make or break production. When the crazy guy dies and leaves Pacino the software, the director finishes his film substituting the computer generated thespian for Ryder and finds himself with an international hit on his hands. The problem is everybody’s wild about Simone (short for the program Simulation One) and completely indifferent to his movie.
The idea is she’s a futuristic amalgam of Hollywood history’s most irresistible leading ladies and therefore has the appeal of a Marilyn Monroe army. Niccol employs the usual screen shorthand to illustrate her world conquest. After the film premieres, he flashes a succession of covers from papers and magazines around the world all featuring the face of Simone. Ho hum.
Pacino is besieged by the entertainment press and has to tap dance around the fact that he has no ingenue to produce for interviews. He concocts a story about Simone being a private person who believes her work should speak for itself. Yawn.
Initially he plans to reveal the truth about his actress but the director gets greedy, deciding instead to make more Simone films and gorging on the success for which he’d always hungered. What starts out as a cheeky indictment of the industry’s manipulation by pampered, overpaid prima donnas rapidly degenerates into a halfbaked, often fuzzy fable addressing, but failing to say much of interest about, the public’s need for idols and the equally insatiable need idolmakers have to supply them.
Niccol’s script manages a handful of semi-snappy lines (“A star is digitized!”) and one or two amusing observations with regard to the movie industry. The picture also benefits from Pacino’s valiant effort. There are moments when the legendary actor generates such implosive energy one gets the impression something of significance is happening in the story. It’s the picture’s most notable illusion.
Millions looking to a single individual for meaning in their lives. A culture which prefers watching life to living it. A media puppetmaster pulling strings from his lonely control booth. Existence as programming. Niccol recycles a great many motifs from Truman but never comes close to putting on as good a show.