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.
In Simone, as in The Truman Show, Niccol presents us with a show-biz fiction: the actress who's made not of flesh and blood, but of ones and zeros -- 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.
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 Spirits 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.
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 -- Pacino seems to enjoy farce; he's having a good time, perhaps because he knows there's nothing at stake here.
Niccol cast Pacino because the writer-director believed his mere presence would accentuate the joke. 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 15 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 worshipers bearing placards that read "One Nation Under Simone." Taransky makes Simone a star, a magazine cover girl, and idol to screaming millions. 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?