Film Reviews: wednesday, August 22, 2002
Wired for Stardom

A nonexistent leading lady helps make Simone Hollywood’s comedy of the year.


Hitchcock once said that Walt Disney had the best actors in the world, because if he didn’t like them, he could just tear them up. The Master of Suspense wasn’t the only filmmaker to wish those pesky people in front of the camera would just shut up and do what they were told. Simone is a fantasy about a director who finds a completely obedient star, and it’s Hollywood’s funniest comedy so far this year.

Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) is a washed-up Hollywood filmmaker whose reputation takes a seemingly fatal hit when the star of his current movie (Winona Ryder) storms off the set after pitching a diva fit over her trailer, though she’s really looking for an out because his movie’s incomprehensible. That’s when a computer programmer and Taransky fan (Elias Koteas) intervenes by dying of cancer caused by overexposure to his computer screen. He leaves Viktor a software program that allows him to digitally create a lifelike actress named Simone who can give whatever kind of performance he needs, and insert her into his film. Working in total secrecy, Viktor saves his movie and his career. His cunning manipulations of the press create a Garbo-like mystique around Simone and make her Hollywood’s hot new thing. However, the creation eventually gets away from the creator.

The movie’s writer/director is Andrew Niccol, but you’d be hard pressed to identify it as coming from the same guy who made the morose 1998 sci-fi epic Gattaca. Who’d have figured he could write such snappy one-liners? An actor (Jay Mohr) angles for a part in Simone’s next film by telling Viktor, “I haven’t read your script yet, but it is fantastic!” Viktor’s studio boss ex-wife (Catherine Keener) notes that Simone will do all her own stunts, including a fall from a plane, and says, “Shoot that on the last day.” Simone telephones her fellow cast members to explain why she won’t be with them physically during shooting: “I find I relate better to people when they’re not actually there.” (What’s funnier about this — her complete lack of irony or the way the other actors find this perfectly normal?)

The comedy frees itself to be more satiric and less realistic by dispensing with surface details that many movies about Hollywood rely on — names of real-life stars, cameos by entertainment journalists or Jay Leno, etc. The film has some of the best comic props, from the computer programmer’s gravestone to the movie poster for Simone’s directing debut. There’s also a great in-joke, though it might be unintentional: Viktor’s incredibly pretentious movies, what with their minimalist design, clunky dialogue, and stiffly posed actors, look a lot like Gattaca.

In contrast to that movie, Niccol encourages his actors here to loosen up, and they respond with some very funny bits: Ryder’s hand gesture indicating a bigger trailer, Keener’s run across a sandy beach in a business suit and high heels, Jason Schwartzman’s poker-faced paparazzi swaying to the music at a concert. Between the physical comedy and the dialogue, the script pays handsome dividends to the supporting cast. (Ryder’s explosively funny performance is made even funnier by her off-screen troubles, as unkind as that sounds.) Curiously, the weak link is Evan Rachel Wood as Viktor’s computer-literate daughter, who’s too demure for this comic fantasy.

Nobody steals the show from Pacino, though. He has never looked this relaxed on camera, except possibly as himself in his great 1996 documentary Looking for Richard. He exercises restraint and lets the laughs come to him. The shtick brings out a buoyancy and lightness in him you never thought he had, as we see him literally run from a creditor or muss up a hotel room so it’ll look like Simone stayed there. Later on, he’s a study in comic outrage as her fame grows out of control. Viktor’s wounded ego leads him to destroy Simone with a computer virus, and as he weeps over his deed while the star dissolves in a shower of pixels, it’s a moment of real and unexpected poignancy.

Alas, the film goes wrong right around there. Viktor’s arrested for Simone’s murder, and the police won’t believe his story that she never existed. It’s a wet blanket of a plot development, although Pacino gets his biggest laugh at its climax. The film has other problems, too. It’s a funny idea that Viktor’s attempts to sabotage Simone’s career only make her more beloved, but audiences hardly worship movie stars as uncritically as they do here. The actress playing Simone (the studio won’t tell us her name, though she’s actually newcomer Rachel Roberts) is bland-looking, and why wouldn’t she be, since she’s supposed to be a composite of every beautiful actress from history? But Roberts doesn’t have movie-star magnetism, which is hard to ignore because all the characters rave about exactly that. For humans and computers, star quality is hard to fake, and she fails at it.

Nevertheless, this movie’s satirical wit and fleetness of foot make it a delightful treat. We always knew that Hollywood was full of phonies, but Simone takes that idea and runs with it until you can’t tell what’s genuine anymore. However, you’ll probably be laughing too much to care.

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