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Like its eponymous heroine, a CGI composite actress assembled from parts of other actresses, the new film Simone brings together familiar formulas to create a generically pleasing whole. Culling and repackaging its satirical stabs at Hollywood from sources far and wide, Andrew Niccol's latest near-future what-if scenario gives off a sheen of originality while provoking an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. Flashes of related, more closely honed media satire constantly erupt from our subconscious -- from Wag the Dog's ego-propelled producer machinations to Being John Malkovich's musings on celebrity non-being. In the end, Simone's determination to lampoon every stage of the pop culture life cycle (from 'star-is-digitized' ascendancy to spectacular flame-out to unlikely resurrection) is ambitious but tiring and ultimately second-hand. Niccol, who serves as writer-director-producer, has even cribbed themes from his previous work: Simone borrows the neo-noir sensibilities of his first feature film, Gattaca, but in its fascination with the life of an artificially grown celebrity, it can be best described as The Truman Show v.2.0.

Essentially the inverse of Ed Harris' omnipotent media titan, Cristof, Al Pacino plays has-been auteur director Viktor Taransky, a Cassavetes disciple whose last three films have bombed. Unable to assuage the diva tantrums of his current leading lady (a self-parodying Winona Ryder), Taransky conspires to complete his film on his own terms with the clandestine aid of a piece of software bequeathed to him by a raving comp-sci seer (Elias Koteas). That software, called Simulation One, enables Taransky to create his own bombshell, whom he christens Sim-One, or Simone. All too accurately described by the unsuspecting media as having "the face of Meryl Streep, the body of Sophia Loren, and the grace of, well, Grace Kelly," Simone rides the celebrity wave as the star of such purplish, Taransky-helmed hits such as Sunrise, Sunset and Eternity Forever.

The movies within the movie are deliciously overripe and hammy, like feature-length Chanel commercials. Their popular and critical acceptance suggests a world gone mad, or at least willingly blind to the artifice of mass entertainment. "Our ability to manufacture fraud exceeds our ability to detect it," Taranksy says in one scene. Determined to keep Simone's true non-identity under wraps, he re-casts himself as her oracle, sacerdotally relaying her best wishes at press conferences and Oscar telecasts. He even shields her from her co-stars, who are so eager to share billing that they agree to only act with her stand-in. As in The Truman Show (which Niccol wrote but didn't direct), the passive creation begins to take on a life of its own, though in Simone's case, sentience is merely a mushrooming projection of the public's empty idol-worship and Taransky's own spiraling sense of worthlessness. Deep within his barren soundstage, surrounded by wide-screen flat panels, Taransky gives life to his digital muse, providing movement, voice, and facial expressions. He even talks to her, enacting both sides of the conversation in what amounts to part confessional interior dialogue, part looking-in-the-mirror pep talk. He flatters himself, tells himself what a great director he is, and in response to mounting demand, engineers a rare public appearance by Simone with the aid of a Barbie doll, a wig, and a star-struck body double (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos).

For all of its pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain screwball antics, Simone only comes to life when emitting low-frequency nastiness. Taransky's world is conceived by production designer Jan Roelfs as a vast, monochromatic back-lot, ruled by studio chief and ex-wife Catherine Keener (who seems to have cornered the market on leggy power bitches). Under-populated yet dense with minor celebrity cameos (including Jay Mohr's unctuous leading man), the back-lot, with its pervasive corporate blandness, stands as a rebuke to Taransky's fierce independence and silently denies him his indie roots. After Simone revives his career, Pacino's Taransky still can't escape emasculation, whether its from the domineering, wall-sized posters of his alter ego, or the ubiquitous fans who have been conditioned to crave more of her. Even his precocious daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is constantly upstaging him, rejecting a birthday present peace-offering and improbably rescuing him when the media hurricane sweeps him away.

Despite a clever third-act parody of Capra-esque self-healing, the movie never gets as subversive as it needs to be, and the majority of the later scenes have the tossed-off feel of a director increasingly willing to try anything. Least successful are his cheap shots at celebrity journalism, a sitting duck if ever there was one. Two tabloid reporters (Jason Schwartzmann and Pruitt Taylor Vince) seem perpetually on the verge of unmasking Taransky's fraud, but even they succumb to Simone's siren song and are reduced to swooning over hair samples and dirty lingerie. The notion that no one is immune from the Hollywood celebrity machine is a timely one. Better still is the idea that celebrities never truly die; they're just re-marketed by the studios. Worthy pop insights both, Simone embraces them with a little too much fervor, sending us on a needlessly convoluted and message-heavy murder subplot that expends a lot of energy to prove the obvious.

Cashing in on his haggard face for the second time this year, Pacino keeps much of the movie from feeling too shrill or didactic. With a simple wide-eyed stare or sigh, he dispels Niccol's earnestness and reigns in the movie's mounting hysteria. Though Pacino's innate ability to project moral confusion lends the movie its film-noir malaise, Simone has more in common with Greek mythology, from a fleeting reference to Pygmalion to Koteas' Tiresias-like prophet. By emphasizing Pacino's smallness (he drives a golf-cart around the set), the movie consigns the director to the bottom of the creative ladder - behind producers, actors, even the publicists - as a kind of divine punishment for toying with life. Pacino registers his rapid descent by withholding his usual explosions, helplessly allowing the absurdity of it all to work its destructive powers. Taransky, in the end, is a defeated demi-god reduced to babbling and miming to himself on his own green-screen movie set.

Simone ultimately hinges on the magnetism of its heroine, and as embodied by uncredited Canadian newcomer Rachel Roberts, she's a fan-boy's wank fantasy. Blankly beautiful and beautifully vacuous, she is pure binary anti-matter, and yet, ironically, she's the movie's rock, immutable and indestructible. The humiliation she suffers at the hands of Pacino's increasingly resentful Taransky only makes her stronger; he can't even kill her because now she belongs to the public. A somewhat facile parody of real-life uber-divas like J. Lo and another actress named Roberts, Simone may be a too all-encompassing character to serve effectively as a satirical rapier. The movie has trouble keeping up with her every pop mutation and ends up spreading itself too thin as it careens from one media highpoint to another. But without Roberts' goddess-gaze, this chaotic universe would surely spin out of control. She is both the cause of and the solution to Taransky's misery. New Line Pictures' tight-lipped refusal to divulge the identity of its leading lady may be little more than a coy marketing ploy, but it suggests that Niccol's cautionary fantasy hasn't bit hard enough to hurt.

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: New Line Cinema
Movie Web site: S1MONE



Photo credits: © 2002 New Line Cinema. All rights reserved.