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A star is (digitally) born

Al Pacino's intensity and comic timing save Simone from otherwise lackluster acting and an unbelievable, leap-frogging plot.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 22, 2002


Al Pacino's intensity and comic timing save Simone from otherwise lackluster acting and an unbelievable, leap-frogging plot.

Simone is every director's dream: photogenic, cooperative, doesn't mind nude scenes and won't demand a bigger dressing room. She's also every actor's nightmare, a computer-generated thespian who needs no Screen Actors Guild card to become a celebrity.

A star is downloaded, a premise that would have seemed like science fiction a decade ago. Writer-director Andrew Niccol turns that notion into Simone, a fitfully sharp satire that's part Pygmalion, part Frankenstein and always interesting. Niccol's screenplay is cut from the same cynical cloth as his script for The Truman Show, both satires of how stardom can be manufactured and nobody will know the difference.

Al Pacino takes a rare detour into comedy as Viktor Taransky, a washed-up director being hung out to dry by a petulant star (Winona Ryder) and a studio chief who happens to be his ex-wife (Catherine Keener). Viktor can't find anyone to take over the star's role when she bolts from his latest labor of love.

The solution arrives with a crazed computer programmer (Elias Koteas) with a means of creating a virtual actor called Simulation One, abbreviated to Simone. Viktor uses the technology to erase and replace the AWOL actor, dubbing her lines through a voice filter and controlling every move.

To the filmmaker's surprise, Simone becomes a phenomenon, first for her looks and emoting, then for the extreme secrecy Viktor cloaks her in to perpetuate the charade. It's the Garbo syndrome: The less Simone the public sees, the more they desire her. Success breeds contempt, however, when Viktor's achievement overshadows her creator. Snooping reporters and demanding fans nudge him into more daring ways of suggesting Simone is real, from a bogus hotel tryst to a stadium concert hologram. Niccol's redundant punch line is that the public always believes.

But we can never be nudged too often about the folly of believing show business. Nothing in Niccol's film happens the way it would in real life, yet every bit of blind idolatry and enthused curiosity feels genuine. The key image in Simone isn't the downloaded face (model Rachel Roberts with a CGI touch-up), but a cocktail party riot when someone thinks they spot Simone and everyone runs in her supposed direction, tumbling into a swimming pool like lemmings. Niccol isn't subtle about making his points, but they're worthwhile.

All of the human characters are as one-dimensional as Simone with the crucial exception of Viktor, using Pacino's intensity and comic timing that usually adds relief to heavier roles. He never pushes the farcical angle or Viktor's temporary insanity too far. It's a well-measured performance despite Niccol's occasional leap-frogging narrative, skipping over developments such as Viktor's mastery of Simone's program and his emotional decline. Each scene seems to bring about a different Viktor, but Pacino keeps his arc steady. You can't find that kind of skill through a computer keyboard.

Simone

Grade: B

Director: Andrew Niccol

Cast: Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Rachel Roberts, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Schwartzman, Jay Mohr, Evan Rachel Wood, Winona Ryder

Screenplay: Andrew Niccol

Rating: PG-13; sensuality, profanity

Running time: 107 min.

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