Ones and Zeros

Max head room: Pacino deals with a motel employee in the slight Simone.

Andrew Niccol keeps making the same movie over and over again and dressing it in slightly different clothes: the sleek charcoal Hugo Boss grays of Gattaca, the crisp Crayola hues of The Truman Show and, now, the silk-and-satin Hollywood resplendence of Simone. Niccol, writer and director, is obsessed with a single notion--Where does reality end and illusion begin, and does it really matter?--and his characters are just different numbers plugged into the same equation. Only the solution changes, and not by much. As one of his characters says--which one, from which film, really doesn't matter--"Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it." (It's a line from Simone, though it plugs into any of Niccol's screenplays.)

Niccol's characters are never who they appear to be on the surface; they're illusions, shams--and, worst of all, metaphors intended only to serve Niccol's stale agenda. In 1997's Gattaca, Ethan Hawke, a genetic "In-Valid," paid a fortune to assume Jude Law's identity in order to achieve his dream of working in outer space; they even shared skin scrapings, to fool the DNA goon squad. In The Truman Show a year later, Jim Carrey believed himself to be a resident of a coastal paradise, though in "reality" his entire life was a fraud--a prime-time made-for-TV existence. Now, in the comedy Simone, Niccol presents us with one more show-biz fiction: the actress who's made not of flesh and blood, but of ones and zeroes--a malleable model who's all code and subject to the whims of her programmer. Simone doesn't exist, yet she's the biggest star in Hollywood--one more false idol in a town of phony prophets (or is that profits?).

Simone has been gathering dust on a shelf for a year--before its release, the movie already plays like a dated relic--and in that time, its premise has been torn to shreds by the likes of Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within, the animated video-game adaptation that bombed at the box office; turns out audiences like their actors real, not approximated. And Simone is hardly the first film to deal with the manufacturing of movie stars; Simone is little more than A Star is Born floating through cyberspace, Celebrity streamed over a computer monitor. That Simone is played by a real actress, newcomer Rachel Roberts (coyly uncredited in the press notes), only further dulls the point and dilutes the message. Of course the audience will flip over her: She's a real person, and a real pretty one.



That's not to say Simone doesn't offer a good time; shove aside its self-righteous agenda and it's a deft kick, a light comedy whenever it's not trying to play heavy. And it's bolstered by Al Pacino in a lively performance that doesn't require him to underscore every line with a yowl and every gesture with a spasm. As Viktor Taransky, a washed-up director who's been fired from the studio by his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), Pacino looks beat-to-hell but feels more alive on screen than he has in years. Unlike Robert De Niro--who looks embarrassed whenever he's trying to make an audience laugh, like someone who knows he's pandering--Pacino seems to enjoy farce; he's having a good time, perhaps because he knows there's nothing at stake here, that at its best Simone is little more than a one-note joke he'll keep ringing till its echo dissipates. Or maybe he's become such a parody we can no longer tell the difference when he's doing comedy or drama in the first place.

Niccol cast Pacino because the writer-director believed his mere presence would accentuate the joke, lend weight to the trivial; he believed it enough just to have a great actor denouncing Hollywood's "irrational allegiance to flesh and blood." But it's lazy moviemaking, because the film never transcends its thesis--it's all joke, no punch line. And you get the movie's intentions 15 minutes in, around the time Taransky introduces his new star--she "replaces" a petulant actress, played by Winona Ryder without a hint of self-parody, in a film called Sunrise, Sunset--and is greeted at the studio's gates by throngs of worshippers bearing placards that read, "One Nation Under Simone." Taransky makes Simone a star, a magazine cover girl and idol to screaming millions; she's created in the image of a thousand movie stars before her--she's a literal hodgepodge, a best-of--but says nothing till Taransky speaks into a microphone. In turn, Simone makes him a viable, valuable commodity once more. Got it: They created each other, more or less.

By the time Taransky puts Simone on a stage performing "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman" to thousands of cheering simpletons who've no clue they're honoring a digital mirage, the movie loses all shape. We've been here before, in fiction and in fact--what, after all, is Britney Spears in concert if not a digitally enhanced, augmented, counterfeited and fabricated reproduction of a human being? So, let's see: Audiences are suckers, and movies aren't real. No, really?

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