Simone (2002) / Comedy-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some sensuality
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Al Pacino, Rachel Roberts, Catherine Keener, Evan Rachel Wood, Winona Ryder
Director: Andrew Niccol
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
Simone is Andrew Niccol's second feature as a director (Gattaca) and third as screenwriter (Gattaca and The Truman Show), and for someone so new to the industry, he has made quite a terrific impression on many in terms of his talents. His themes of real vs. facade, and how the industry of television and the movies uses and abuses people makes for some interesting and insightful entertainment. Niccol seems to understand that what we see and how we think is all predicated on illusion, an illusion created in an industry built on making us believe that a work of fiction is really the truth and that the actors are really the characters they portray. When he sticks to his thematic forte, he is a master of the craft. Unfortunately, Simone, at its conception level, is supposed to be a mad-cap comedy, which usually means kooky antics to make us laugh, as well as a fast-moving plot to not let us stop and think about unrealistic contrivances. The problem is that it's a mad-cap comedy written by a somber theorist who likes to run his themes deep. Plots built on unrealistic contrivances while also demanding poignant moments of reflective thinking jrarely mix well.
Al Pacino (Insomnia, The Insider) plays a once respected director, Viktor Taransky, who sees his latest work about to fall to pieces when the leading lady (Ryder, Mr. Deeds) walks off the set citing "artistic differences", which actually means she is upset about not having the biggest trailer and all of the luxurious amenities bestowed upon her at the slightest whim. After getting the axe by his studio boss ex-wife (Keener, Being John Malkovich), his career seems on the skids, just like his family life did when his wife and daughter left him.
On the road to packing it up for good, a computer genius with one week to live delivers a god-send, a project he has spent eight years designing to deliver it to the one man who can bring his vision and hard work to life, Viktor. The godsend comes in the form of a computer program called Simulation One, whereby an artificial person can be created, modified and controlled, and if used as an actress in a movie, she will deliver exactly the look and delivery a director wants without the headache of wanting to be pampered at every moment. Taransky uses the program and creates the perfect actress (Roberts, How to Seduce Difficult Women), truncates the name "Simulation One" to "Sim One" to "Simone", and uses her to finish his movie the way he saw fit. The experiment is a resounding success, and Simone becomes an overnight sensation, catapulting her to superstardom. However, with stardom and success comes curiosity and the tabloids, and Taransky must try very hard to keep the fact that Simone doesn't really exist under wraps or risk ruining his career for good.
There may be two basic reasons why people will want to see Simone, so I will try to break them down, and depending on where you fit, you can decide for yourself if it may be worth it for you.
Reason #1: Al Pacino
Pacino, of course, is one of the world's greatest cinematic actors, and watching Pacino at his best is usually worth the price of admission alone. Pacino definitely delivers a quality performance in Simone, with a rare comedic portrayal that showcases his range brilliantly. When an actor as gifted as Pacino, and one who single-handedly made good films because of his performances, delivers the line "Who needs actors?", you realize the ironic implications that gives the film a subtext of amusement that it would not have had they cast someone of lesser ability.
If there is a downside to Pacino's involvement, it happens to be because we know him too well, and when an actor as believable as Pacino does some unbelievable things, we don't buy it. Pacino may be a great actor, but that doesn't mean he can play any role, and in a role that requires us to believe he has an natural affinity for computers and technology, we can try to suspend our disbelief, and most will probably fail. Pacino's Taransky is ambitious, enough to believe he will try anything out of desperation, but he isn't weird or eccentric enough to believe he could actually come up with the ideas he does. In essence, Pacino is a double-edged sword, and while we can appreciate his solid performance and understand why he was cast, perhaps Simone could have been better with someone else more believable as a genius who cracks under pressure (a la John Malkovich in Shadow of the Vampire), even if it sacrifices the ironic subtext.
Reason #2: Entertainment Value
The film employs two forms of comedy, the aforementioned mad-cap zaniness, and also biting satire. Satire is a type of comedy that requires viewers to know the subject intimately, and catch the subtle digs and knocks along the way, and while most people by-and-large aren't actors or directors, we know enough about the behind-the-scenes wranglings to get the barbs about egos and tantrums from big stars. We also know how the media worships icons, even when they are on a seek-and-destroy mission, and how the public is willing to put up with stars, who can literally get away with murder if they are popular and beloved enough. For those interested in a terrific satirical piece, Simone offers lots of comedic moments and food for thought, and while those satirical moments aren't usually the stuff of laugh-out-loud hilarity, there are some key moments, scenes and insights that are delivered with precision.
Simone is on less sure footing when it tries to go for the obvious laugh, such as when Taransky uses a mannequin in a car to evoke the feeling of a face-to-face contact or when he puts on lipstick when kissing glossies for Simone's adoring fans. Given the right context and the right film, these things can be funny, but Simone's miscalculated attempts at being a farce is like the gifted A-student who gets chastised for trying to be the class clown, "I expect more from you. You should know better than that."
Simone is worth watching for all of the finer elements, and there is admittedly quite a lot of choice, memorable moments to make the film enjoyable. Unfortunately, it still may disappoint many viewers as it strives to achieve more than it ends up delivering. The feeling of watching Simone is akin to the main premise of the film. Simone is a film that strives to be great art, but at its core it is still a superficially contrived device manipulated at the hands of a visionary director.
©2002 Vince Leo