Simone asks what would happen if a computer-generated actor (a “synthespian”) was created so believably that she could pass for real. Andrew M. Niccol, the writer of The Truman Show and the writer/director of Gattaca, is very good at asking these kinds of tricky questions. I just wish he were good at answering them.
A Star is Born
Did You Notice?
Al Pacino is Viktor Taransky, a fading director with three recent flops on his resume. His latest film, “Sunrise Sunset,” is almost finished, but his star Nicola (Winona Ryder) has walked out and sued to keep him from releasing the picture with her in it. His producer and ex-wife (Katherine Keener) decides to cut their losses, and she takes away his funding, although Viktor manages to escape with the footage.
Fate hands Viktor a piece of software that is the most advanced human simulation program ever. With it, he creates Simone (short for “simulation one”), a digital amalgam of Katharine Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and a dozen other great actresses and models. With Simone (played by Rachel Roberts, with lots of digital touch-up), he is able to replace Nicola without reshooting, and “nine months later,” he presents the studio with a workable movie.
Everyone thinks Simone is fantastic in Viktor’s movie, and they demand to know more about this mystery woman. Apparently nobody can tell that she’s artificial.
d) All of the Above
So far so good. But at this point, the story needs to tell us where it’s going. Will Simone become a black comedy where the American public is played for a bunch of saps? Will it be a cautionary tale about telling lies? Or should it be a Pygmalion-like romance between artist and creation? Any one of these could make for a good movie.
What Niccol does instead is choose “d) All of the above,” and the movie is worse for it. Just when you think Viktor has learned a valuable lesson, Niccol turns up the comedy and the lesson is forgotten. Or vice-versa, with a good comedy being interrupted by a sober lesson from an earnest child. After a while, I stopped trying to assist and just let the movie carry me along in its current.
We saw lots of scenery, but we didn’t get anywhere. When all was said and done, I left feeling confused and annoyed. I didn’t know what to make of Simone. I didn’t know how to take it. I certainly didn’t appreciate its eclectic-ness, which just seemed like the random thoughts of an undisciplined writer.
Just Another Pretty Face
At least I can say there is one point about which I feel strongly. Niccol asks us, his audience, to believe that Simone’s audience adores and worships her, artistically and as an entertainer. She’s the next Madonna or Jennifer Lopez, only bigger and more artsy. But Niccol only ever shows us brief glimpses of Simone performing, and so we can never judge whether she deserves her fame.
For example, the only scene in “Sunrise Sunset” that we get to see is a sad, lovelorn farewell. But Simone doesn’t appear to be sad, she appears to be posing for a magazine ad. If I were watching “Sunrise Sunset” I would be rolling my eyes in disgust. Beauty is not talent, and critics and audiences, in general, are not dumb enough to mistake the two.
We — Niccol’s audience — never get the chance to fall in love with Simone as a celebrity. From what he shows us, she doesn’t live up to her carefully-scripted reputation. Maybe if Simone were built on an actor instead of a model — Julia Roberts comes to mind — we might understand Simone’s appeal. But if Niccol can’t prove it to us, then the whole premise of the movie dissolves away.
Lest you get the wrong impression, there are some saving graces in Simone. Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman are a great pair of investigative reporters. They are broadly comic — too broad for a light drama, but when Simone decides to be a comedy, they fit right in and steal the show. Elias Koteas makes memorable an otherwise perfunctory role.
And I have to say that Simone pulled two big, unexpected laughs out of me, one when Pruitt Taylor Vince brags about who he has dirt on, and once when, in a fit of jealousy, Viktor has Simone direct her first film.
But these saving graces are just the extras, just the ornamental finishes on a structure that doesn’t deserve them. At its core, Simone is muddled, and on the whole, the movie doesn’t work. Niccol may be good at asking interesting questions, but he should hire someone else to answer them for him.