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"SIMONE"
(2002) (Al Pacino, Catherine Keener) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: After secretly putting a computer-generated actress into his latest film, a Hollywood director must then deal with the press, public and studio executives who clamor for more of the starlet they believe to be real.
PLOT:
Viktor Taransky (AL PACINO) is a Hollywood director who's been plagued by recent bad luck. Not only have his last three films flopped, but also his latest one starring Nicola Anders (WINONA RYDER) has run into a major snag. Viktor has no problem with her co-star, Hal Sinclair (JAY MOHR), but the vain and pampered actress is driving him crazy with her constant personal demands.

She eventually quits and threatens to sue if any of her footage appears in the film, resulting in studio head Elaine Christian (CATHERINE KEENER) pulling the plug on the project and firing Viktor. That only adds salt to the wound since she's his ex-wife with whom they have a teenage daughter, Lainey (EVAN RACHEL WOOD).

Viktor gets a break, however, when the ailing Hank Aleno (ELIAS KOTEAS) approaches him with a solution to his problem. It seems that he's developed a software program - Simulation One or "S1mOne"- that will allow for the creation and inclusion of a realistic-looking but completely computer-generated performer into his unfinished film.

Nine months later, Viktor has completed his work with "Simone" (RACHEL ROBERTS) having replaced Nicola. Not only is the film a hit, but the press and public are also fooled into believing the "actress" is real. She quickly becomes an overnight sensation and everyone wants a piece of her, including tabloid reporters Max (PRUITT TAYLOR VINCE) and Milton (JASON SCHWARTZMAN) who work the hardest at uncovering the story behind the new star. As they do so, Viktor must then deal not only with maintaining his secret, but also his new actress' increasing popularity and stardom.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
When children make up imaginary people, they're noted as being imaginative, creative and, well, just kids. When adults do the same thing, they're labeled as lonely, fraudulent or simply crazy. That is, of course, unless they work in the entertainment business where fictitious characters and stage names are far more the norm than the exception.

That's particularly true in the world of movies where there exists an omnipresent publicity machine designed to create stars, as well as an ever increasingly sophisticated technology that brings fake characters to life. In recent years and with the advent of even more powerful computers and sophisticated software, it's become progressively easier to render characters that look ever more realistic in representing or portraying humans.

Case in point was 2001's "Final Fantasy," a completely computer-generated effort that occasionally was a little too eerily close to the real thing and stirred up rumblings about such silicon beings eventually replacing the real, flesh and blood performers.

That's part of the premise behind "Simone," a satirical look at Hollywood, fakery and the ability to manipulate and fool others to the point where such trickery takes on a life of its own. Written, directed and produced by Andrew Niccol (writer/director of "Gattaca," writer of "The Truman Show"), the film echoes some of the themes of that latter Jim Carrey film while also hinting at the psychosis and more primitive fakery found in the Anthony Hopkins ventriloquist thriller, "Magic."

This one's meant as a comedy, however, and while occasionally amusing, it never quite catches its full comedic or satirical stride (unlike "Truman"). That's despite a plot that basically consists of a director becoming so fed up with egos and the Hollywood system that he uses a digital character to complete his unfinished work that's been left in limbo when his real life starlet storms off the set and threatens to sue if he uses any of her footage.

As is often the case in films such as this, the title character literally becomes an overnight sensation and soon threatens to overwhelm and destroy its creator, much like the original and often copied Frankenstein monster. Some will also see parallels to other similar stories such as the "Tuttle" episode from TV's "M*A*S*H" where various characters soon came to believe that they knew or had met the made-up character.

Despite or perhaps because of all of that, the film offers few surprises, but more than its share of contrivances, convenient developments and plain old oddities in terms of its plot and related developments. The latter includes the use of the long since abandoned, five and a quarter inch floppy disks (those great big ones that actually were floppy, hence the name) on a computer that has to be some sort of purposeful joke.

The script also misses, in my humble but aspiring screenwriter opinion, various opportunities to take the premise, theme and subsequent complications and comedy and really run with them, thus taking the film much further down the road toward being more interesting and entertaining.

For instance, while the Simone character takes on a life of her own - thanks to the initial efforts of her perpetrators and the subsequent ones of the gullible masses - it might have been more fun and/or interesting if the computer-creation developed an actual consciousness and will.

In that regard, the irony could have been that the idealistic filmmaker would have ended up with something far worse and more demanding or manipulative than the egotistical human performer he intended to replace. One can only imagine the plethora of comedic and satirical complications that could have then ensued.

Conversely, the filmmakers could have gone the psychosis route where the director and his creation would become inseparable in a split-personality sort of way (much like Hopkins and his dummy in "Magic"). By doing so, the film could have allowed us to see a unique battle of wills and ultimate control over the protagonist's identity.

Niccol goes down that latter path more than the former, but doesn't proceed far enough into it to make the effort as much pointed fun as it could have been. In addition, the satirical material isn't particularly strong or clever - despite the film pounding the viewer over the head with it rather than being subtle - resulting in moments that are merely amusing rather than hilarious as presumably intended.

Possibly attempting to follow Robert De Niro (and his hits "Analyze This" and "Meet the Parents") into the world of comedy, Al Pacino ("Insomnia," "Any Given Sunday") certainly doesn't stink up the place playing the increasingly harried film director, and his mere presence certainly makes the film easy enough to watch. Then again, he doesn't really seem the right performer to play this particular character and isn't particularly engaging or memorable in the role.

Catherine Keener ("Full Frontal," "Lovely & Amazing") appears as his ex-wife and current boss (in a bit that will remind viewers of the similar setup between Woody Allen and Téa Leoni in "Hollywood Ending"), but isn't as much fun in the part as she has been in others.

Evan Rachel Wood ("Practical Magic," various TV movies) plays the typical daughter who hates what becomes of her father, while Pruitt Taylor Vince ("The Cell," "Nurse Betty") and Jason Schwartzman ("Slackers," "Rushmore") aren't very convincing or funny as reporters trying to uncover the truth about the title character.

According to the press notes, that synthetic being reportedly plays herself, but rumor has it that it's really model Rachel Roberts (making her debut) in the role. Winona Ryder ("Mr. Deeds," "Lost Souls"), Jay Mohr ("The Adventures of Pluto Nash," "Pay it Forward") and Elias Koteas ("Collateral Damage," "Harrison's Flowers") show up in some cameo bits, with Ryder getting some of the film's funnier moments as a demanding actress.

Far more successful in concept than realized script or finished film in terms of parodying Hollywood and how easily people can be fooled and/or misled, the effort offers a few laughs. Nevertheless, it contains too many missed opportunities, mediocre storytelling and limp satire to be as good as it might have been. Simone rates as just a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed July 9, 2002 / Posted August 16, 2002


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