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? 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, "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 showbiz 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, 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. It's 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 onscreen 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.
Niccol cast Pacino because the writer/director believed his mere presence would accentuate the joke, lend weight to the trivial; he believed it is enough to just 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 fifteen 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 made 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?