Every age gets the simulated femme fatale it deserves. Weimar Germany, for example, had Maria the robot in Fritz Langís Metropolis (which has been restored for its 75th anniversary and is opening at the Brattle this week). According to Siegfried Kracauer in From Caligari to Hitler, this mechanical mass seducer embodied "the then current cult of the machine" and was a merger of "Wagner and Krupp." Today we have Simone, the titular heroine of Andrew Niccolís uneven satire, a computer-generated figment of mass appeal embodying the current cult of celebrity, the demon spawn of Britney Spears and George Lucas.
Simone, needless to say, is no Metropolis. Like Niccolís previous Gattaca and to a lesser extent The Truman Show (which he wrote and Peter Weir directed), the film posits a startling concept and then fumbles into predictability. Along the way, though, it does provoke thought about the issues it raises, if laboriously, and it arouses admiration with its images of striking beauty and intelligence, however gratuitous.
Also to his credit, Niccol has demonstrated a thematic consistency in his limited output. Simone reduces Gattacaís society of human perfectibility to the individual scale while inverting The Truman Showís premise of a real character at odds with a fake world into that of a fake character embraced by the real world. Itís a fable about the human yearning for an ideal that doesnít exist and the tawdry substitutes that get accepted in its place. In short, another lampoon of Hollywood coyly spun out by Hollywood itself.
Although not as flimsy as Woody Allenís Hollywood Ending, Simone is not Robert Altmanís The Player, either. It starts and ends like a Garry Marshall movie, and the pace gets no prompting from Al Pacinoís performance as Viktor Taransky (a fusion of Andrei Tarkovsky and Viktor Frankenstein?), the washed-up auteur given a second chance when the software for Simone (short for "Simulation One") falls into his lap. Pacino looks as if he were still waiting for a wake-up call on the set of Insomnia, and his lethargy makes Viktor neither sympathetic nor funny. So when the diva star (Winona Ryder, in a bit part that should have been funnier) walks off the set of Viktorís latest opus, Eternity Forever, she seems to be demonstrating more sense than egomania. Viktor appears to be the one suffering from delusions of grandeur ó certainly the outtakes from Eternity concocted (perhaps as self-parody) by Niccol look like a cross between an Obsession ad and a pretentious student film.
Nonetheless, Viktor blames not his lack of genius but the vainglory of actors for his downfall, an attitude thatís of no avail when studio head Elaine (Catherine Keener), whoís also his ex-wife, cans him. So when Hank (Elias Koteas), a dotty inventor, posthumously delivers the discs that can simulate the ultimate actress composed of the bits and pieces of all the movie greats (from Audrey Hepburn to Ernest Borgnine), Viktor sees an opportunity to expose the fallacy of star power. Heíll create a star of his own, then unmask her as a phony.
But in the meantime his career and Eternity Forever both take off, and Viktor has trouble blowing it all just to make a point. Simone becomes a superstar, a multi-media phenomenon whose blond, unblemished, big-lipped beauty provides a blank screen onto which both men and women can project their desires. Although itís hard to believe that such a bland and minimally gifted illusion could make it that big even in these benighted times, Niccol still has mild fun at the expense of entertainment journalists, the Oscars, and the celebrity fetishism that reflects the desperate void in American pop culture.
Unfortunately for Viktor and the film, complications arise. The editor of a tabloid takes a kinky personal interest in tracking down Simoneís true identity, and that forces Viktor into increasingly contrived deceptions to conceal her non-existence. And the growing bond between Viktor and his star arouses ambivalence in Elaine, which in turn piques their mini-adult teenage daughter, Lainey (Evan Rachel Wood), to try to bring about her parentsí reconciliation.
So much for incisive satire. At other times, Simone seems as phony as last yearís Americaís Sweethearts. Itís at its best when Niccol indulges his eye for the arresting image ó shot by Edward Lachman, the film is bathed in an amber light thatís crisp, sickly, and synthetic, and the set designs by Peter Greenaway collaborator Jan Roelfs make clever use of trompe-líŌil. The only time the film comes close to genuine feeling, however, is when Viktor sits alone with Simone in an empty soundstage before a computer screen, tweaking her perfection, making her the image of his own narcissism. The myth of Pygmalion, after all, was a love story. Niccol errs badly by not making Simone one as well.