|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 21 January 2003|
For years now, there's been a lot of talk about someday replacing human actors with CGI-designed figures, a form of animation. The pinnacle so far is Gollum in "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," while "S1m0ne" tells a tale of when just such an undetectable "synthespian" (as the movie has it) actually becomes a major star. But no one knows she's just the result of a sophisticated computer program.
And that's where lies one of the big problems with "Simone" (I'm not going to keep up that smug title format) -- it's utterly impossible to believe that, as presented, anything like that would happen. Sure, the supposedly artificial Simone looks real, because she IS real, a Canadian actress named (like others before her) Rachel Roberts. She's gorgeous enough, but based on what we see, there's no way she become utterly beloved by the whole world on the basis of the pompous, artsy movie she "stars" in, glimpses of which we (unfortunately) see. Anyone who has sat through the long, long, LONG credit roles of movies which really do include computer animation knows that it takes a small army of well-trained technicians to realize this stuff, even ineptly, much less perfectly photorealistic.
And Al Pacino's harassed director Viktor Taransky does it all in nine months.
Granted, the film is a fable and there's no reason for it to try to realistically depict the creation of a photo-realistic CGI character -- it's not important how Taransky does it, it's important THAT he does it.
When Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder, in a cameo), the spoiled star of his film in production walks off because her trailer isn't the biggest possible, Viktor's wife Elaine (Catherine Keener), head of the studio, is forced to fire him. He helplessly complains that Nicola's demands are unreasonable. She insists that when on location, her nanny be given first-class plane tickets – and she doesn't even have children.
Viktor has endless difficulty in trying to land a new star, and finally gives up. But as he's packing up to leave the studio (both Paramount's and Warner's lots are used), peculiar stranger Hank (an uncredited Elias Koteas) pops up to give Viktor a computer program he's been working on for eight years. And he's going to die within a week. By himself, Viktor fiddles with the program/disc, and nine months later....
Simone is not just popular, but her Garbo-like demand for solitude makes her a major mystery. Her fame feeds on itself and grows exponentially. Viktor must be reveling in this, according to the story, but the haggard-looking Pacino doesn't live up to the signs in the text. His wife and everyone else becomes phenomenally curious about the phenomenon of Simone, while forced to keep his secrets, Viktor really has only Simone to talk to -- and then he's just talking to himself.
Magazine journalist Max Sayer (Pruitt Taylor Vince) becomes obsessed by the mystery of Simone, and becomes a pest trying to uncover all he can. Some stars and others tell reporters that they know Simone, or have been dating Simone, etc. etc.
At first all this is probably amusing Viktor (but Pacino's mostly glum performance makes it hard to tell), and he finally decides to destroy Simone's popularity.
"Simone" was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who wrote the excellent "The Truman Show." That was about a real man living in a totally manufactured world; "Simone" is about a totally manufactured person becoming the idol of what's supposed to be a real world. Niccol seems to have one idea, and he's turning it every which way to pick up light from different facets.
The trouble is he doesn't do that. Peter Weir, an outstanding director, helmed "The Truman Show," but Niccol himself directed "Simone." And this time, as neither writer nor director can Niccol come up with an engaging idea. There's about enough plot -- and characters -- in "Simone" to make up perhaps a half-hour "Twilight Zone" episode. But what the film really lacks is less plot than a clear reason for existing in the first place.
Is this a satire? It seems to be criticizing the great power that audiences willingly hand movie stars, and there's justification for such an approach, but there's nothing about Simone herself that would seem to warrant such fascination. She's pretty, and that's about it; she's certainly not -- based on the evidence offered -- much of an actress at all, much less a great one. As a spoof of star demands, "Simone" fails, since the "Vactor" doesn't MAKE demands since she doesn't exist.
It's not even especially critical of Hollywood; the single exec we see as a character, Elaine, is not an unreasonable person at all, though she's susceptible to Simone-worship, too. Is it a spoof of how easy people are to fool? No, because we're supposed to regard Simone as real enough to do exactly that.
Viktor himself is more a target of raised eyebrows than any other aspect of the movie. He seems to be a depressingly pompous director; he invokes Cassavetes, but his lush movies are as removed from Cassavetes' as it's possible for a film to be. Are we supposed to regard him as a successful director? No, because his "last three films tanked." The basic idea is that this crappy director -- and I don't believe Niccol wants to think of him as a good one -- makes it to the top on the basis of a single movie and one actress. That means the actress, real or not, is supposed to have a tremendous appeal -- but she's actually uninteresting, hardly the "miracle" who's "not of this earth" as audience members gush.
Viktor has assembled her in some manner out of computer programs that incorporate the key traits of hundreds of great actresses -- Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, Jodie Foster, Elizabeth Taylor, Meryl Streep, Sophia Loren, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, etc. (A tiny joke is that this vast menu also includes Ernest Borgnine.) But the result doesn't seem like a Frankenstein-like collage, but a supermodel trying to act.
The story is very thin, and relies a lot on Pacino's appeal. However, as you may have noticed, Pacino rarely does comedies. "Simone" is an example of why he doesn't: he plays this comedy exactly in the same manner as he plays drama. All line readings are poker-faced and somber, and he doesn't seem to have even HEARD of comedy timing. "Simone" barely floats; Pacino is the anchor that sinks it.
But then, no one in the film is of much interest. It's a very strangely cast movie, with no significant character actors, no leads playing amusing bits. Jay Mohr and Pruitt Taylor Vince fare okay, but they're good comedy actors in the first place. Pacino evidently is not.
There's one major virtue of "Simone," though. The DVD has two sides, one with the "standard" (pan and scan) version, the other with the wide-screen version. If you buy this, scrape the wide-screen side clean. This is a stunningly-photographed movie, with stark, spacious compositions, a superb use of color and excellent staging. (The production design is not a big assist here, as it's ordinary.) The credited cinematographers are Derek Grover and Edward Lachman, but it's possible that Niccol himself is responsible for the imaginative compositions that take full advantage of the wide-screen images.
The extras on the disc do not include (surprisingly) a commentary track by Niccol. Instead, there are some rather boring deleted scenes, which show clearly why the were deleted, a routine bit about using technology to create an unreal real person, trailers and the like. The sound technology on the disc is interesting, as it include (for the first time I've noticed) DTS ES 6.1 sound as an option. But the movie itself doesn't use sound in a showy manner.
The very rock-bottom idea of "Simone" -- a computer-created star who cannot be told from live ones -- is very interesting, and could have been developed into an interesting movie. "Simone," however, is not that movie.