2002, PG-13, 117 min. Directed by Andrew Niccol. Starring Pruitt Taylor Vince, Evan Rachel Wood, Jason Schwartzman, Jay Mohr, Catherine Keener, Rachel Roberts, Al Pacino.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 23, 2002
In our current age of digitized media where truly lifelike images of dinosaurs routinely trundle across the silver screen and even the most drop-dead gorgeous of superstars regularly have their onscreen personas digitally buffed to remove blemishes and add hair, what does it mean to both the world of entertainment and the world at large that the line of demarcation between the real and the unreal is no longer visible to the naked eye? If beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, does it really matter if that eye is blind to the digital whitewash, as long as it still perceives beauty, however false? The populist in me says yes, it matters tremendously, but the cynic in me says maybe it doesn't matter all that much. After all, the audience at Simone's preview screening genuinely enjoyed the film, while my filmmaker friend and I could barely stifle our gag reflexes. It's not just that Simone -- which features Al Pacino as a washed-up Hollywood director who clandestinely uses a computer-generated actress (a digitized Rachel Roberts) to sidestep the annoyances of employing the far more demanding flesh-and-blood model to stage his comeback -- is poorly written (it is), or that its admittedly interesting notions on real vs. fake are never fully thought out (they aren't), or even that so many of the film's subplots go absolutely nowhere (they don't, and for that, someone, somewhere owes Jason Schwartzman either an apology or a raise). What really irked me about Simone was that it stank of the very thing it appeared to be mocking: it's a big-budget, commercial film taking potshots at big-budget, commercial filmmaking (as well as overripe, over-earnest indies), and although it strives constantly for a sense of knowing, winking irony, the only thing ironic about it is how much it resembles its supposed target. Coming from Andrew Niccol, this is surprising, if not shocking. Niccol's directorial and screenwriting debut was the dystopic, sci-fi paranoia-spree Gattaca, followed by his script for The Truman Show, neither of which will ever be accused of being lowbrow. Simone, peppered with nifty ideas and containing a heartfelt and extremely topical core, on the other hand, feels like it could have been directed by anyone; for all its barbed smarts, it's deadly dumb, and Niccol's dialogue is miles away from the crisp tang of his previous work. (For truly great satire in a very similar vein, Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog has twice the bite and might as well be a documentary for all its political prescience.) It doesn't help matters any that the character of Simone, allegedly so alluring that she brings the world to its knees (virtually), has bland, generic supermodel looks that likely wouldn't even merit the cover of Teen People; Kate Moss has more charisma in any one of her moles than this high-gloss phony. In the end Simone is torpedoed by its own overarching idealism -- the film targets the new star system, the media, the studios, digital technology, and pretty much everything else you might care to think of -- and not enough script to back it all up. That Niccol is a smart guy is a matter of filmic record, but with Simone he's just a wiseguy. Where's Max Headroom when you really need him?