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Review: 'Simone' falls flat on screen

Stretching a point, past its breaking point

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Is she real? Or is she digital? Does anyone really care?

In the new film "Simone," director Andrew Niccol joins a long list of filmmakers attempting to lampoon the illusions produced by Hollywood and the shallowness of fame. It's been done before, and it's been done better.

However, in all fairness, Al Pacino delivers a hilarious performance as Viktor Taransky, a hapless director attempting a comeback after a string of flops. Catherine Keener (1999's "Being John Malkovich") plays Taransky's ex-wife and the head of the studio which is giving him his final chance. The Oscar-nominated Keener continues to display a talent that should keep her around for a long, long time.

Then there's the title character Simone, played by, well, who knows? But we'll get to that later.

In the film, Simone is a digital diva, totally computer generated and created by Taransky in an act of frantic desperation. After his leading lady (Winona Ryder, in an unbilled cameo appearance) walks off his movie before it's completed, Taransky is left in the lurch. He's toast. Career over. Then, like the proverbial cavalry coming over the hill, a strange stranger appears (another unbilled cameo, by Elias Koteas. And what's with all these actors not wanting a credit on this film? Did they know something no one else did? But I digress).

The stranger (you know he's strange because he's dressed in a dirty raincoat and wearing an eye patch) serendipitously gives Taransky the computer software to create the world's first synthetic thespian. I guess Keanu Reeves doesn't count.

An insult to intelligence

Meet the real 'Simone' Steal This Look: 'Simone's' Rachel Roberts 



Taransky dubs his creation Simone, short for "simulation one." She's beautiful, she has no temper tantrums, no trailer, no messy drug problems, no agent, no entourage, and she always knows her lines. With new star on tow, Taransky re-edits his film and inserts Simone into all the scenes previously occupied by Ryder. So far, so good -- until Niccol insults the intelligence of his audience.

No one has ever accused Hollywood of being a major brain trust, but really.

After the release of the film, Simone is suddenly a major star, and Taransky proceeds to get the studio to green-light a new, multimillion-dollar film starring this new leading lady that no one has ever met. The beyond-lucky director then convinces all her co-stars in the new movie that Simone's "process" is to work completely alone, and then she'll be inserted later, so all the other actors involved have to interact with a blue screen instead of a real person. Come on. Hey, it's not like I missed Niccol's point that Hollywood will make any concession for a star with big box-office appeal, and fame is really just an illusion in the end, but there IS a limit.

Niccol is obviously fascinated by the quest for human perfection. He wrote and directed "Gattaca" (1997). He's also interested in the art of illusion. He wrote and produced "The Truman Show" (1998). "Simone" sort of combines the two, but the end result is a satire that hits you over the head with a hammer.

Who is Simone?

Then there is the whole silly question about who Simone is -- or isn't. Is she computer generated? Is she a real person?

The answer is yes and yes. For two years everyone involved in the film was under a gag order from New Line Cinema (a division of AOL Time Warner, as is not to reveal the answer to those questions. No actress is named as Simone and the film's credits read that Simone is played by herself.

This promotional campaign, of course, plays right into what the film is all about. But in the end, it's rather pointless -- the gag order was lifted just two days before the premiere. Simone is actually played by Canadian model Rachel Roberts in her film debut. However, she's been "enhanced" by numerous visual effects artists. Niccol wanted her to look almost real but not quite. He wanted to keep the audience guessing, and she -- it -- is fairly amazing. But it's obvious a real woman lurks behind the computer image, despite all the digital tinkering.

"Simone" is not a bad film. It just doesn't have anything really interesting to say. There are some good moments and the performances are finely tuned, but, hey, that's why they invented Blockbuster.

"Simone" opens nationwide on Friday, August 23 and is rated PG-13.


• 'Simone'

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