Anyone familiar with Niccol's work, as screenwriter on "The Truman Show" and writer/director of "Gattaca," knows that he has a particular fascination with issues of perception and illusion, especially as they relate to the human condition. With "Simone" he has essentially turned "The Truman Show" inside-out, replacing that earlier film's depiction of a real man-turned-unwitting celebrity with a cautionary tale about the meteoric rise of a celebrity who is, in fact, artificial. Both films are an all-out assault on celebrity-obsessed, media-driven society but draw their ammunition from different depots, with "Simone" by far the more cynical of the two.
The charade at the film's core is a rather obvious technological contrivance--a computer-generated "actress" (played by an unnamed human actress billed only as "Simone"), created by an eccentric genius named Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas) who has so overexposed himself to microwaves in the process that he's dying of an inoperable eye tumor. To insure that his creation does not die with him, Hank wills his hard drives to film director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), a passionate artist whose career is in a seemingly irreversible decline. Despite his best efforts, Viktor can't seem to do anything right any more--pampered stars throw tantrums in his face and his studio chief ex-wife (Catherine Keener) has just canceled his deal and shelved his new picture. Thanks to the late Hank's handiwork, however, Viktor no longer needs either the studio or even actors to finish the film. Courtesy of a gigantic database of traits assembled from the greatest actresses of all time, Viktor and the computer need only time and ingenuity to assemble precisely the performance he needs.
When Simone (a contraction of "Simulation One") finally makes her debut, everyone is instantly infatuated with the talented new blonde bombshell from nowhere. Who is she? Where did she come from? In a flash, a new star is born and Viktor's career is resuscitated. Unfortunately, withholding the truth about Simone from colleagues and the ever-pesky media (including a persistent pair of tabloid journalists played by Taylor Pruitt Vince and Jason Schwartzman) proves a full-time job--one that tests the limits of Viktor's abilities and sanity. What's surprising about "Simone" is just how funny it is. Niccol's work has shown flashes of humor in the past, but never the kind of high-concept comedy he indulges here. For a time, the picture almost seems to be playing out like a kind of cyber-age "Tootsie," with Pacino ably working every nuance of what may arguably be the funniest role of his career. And the anonymous star at the center of it all, rumored to be a Canadian model whose name will be revealed at the time of the film's opening, is truly a remarkable find. She's everything the role demands: convincingly sincere one moment, ridiculously off-kilter the next. Still, not all of the story mechanics work. Niccol forces his narrative over a handful of speed bumps that more than stretch the limits of credibility, though the picture is consistently amusing enough that audiences aren't likely to mind. Three scenes in particular are nothing short of comedic brilliance and rank among the funniest pieces of American cinema in decades, more than excusing the occasional clumsiness with which the film itself ties them together. Like all great comedy, "Simone" works not merely because it's funny but because it's truthful, sometimes in a very painful way. Behind the laughs and the more obviously outrageous barbs at the film industry are some agonizingly painful swipes at human naïveté in general, the eagerness with which filmmakers and filmgoers alike willingly suspend judgment, common sense and even self-interest to dotingly fawn at the feet of movie stars who, by and large, are nothing but media creations of a different sort. It is, indeed, the greatest of ironies that those who sit and laugh at "Simone" and its targets may never realize that they are actually laughing at themselves. Starring Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Schwartzman and Simone. Directed, written and produced by Andrew Niccol. A New Line release. Comedy. Rated PG-13 for some sensuality. Running time: 117 min