Movie review, 'Simone'

The brave new world of movie CGI (Computer Generated Images) -- programs that are a bewitching counterfeit of life itself -- has changed the movies more radically than we may realize, bringing us mock stadiums packed with mock people in "Gladiator," and monsters and armies that aren't really there in the "Star Wars" and "Spy Kids" films.

Obviously, it was only a matter of time before not just the extras and mythical beings but the human leads themselves were CGI creations -- which is what we finally see in Andrew Niccol's new movie, "Simone."

"Simone" is a ravishing crock. Like its title character, a computer-generated movie star programmed to resemble a cross between Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Kim Basinger, it's beautiful but empty, gorgeous but spurious. This pouty-lipped, sleek-skinned science-fiction satire of Hollywood's false fronts, artistic chicanery and vacuous publicity machinery, with Al Pacino as desperate-genius director Viktor Tarnasky, who brings Simone to life, is so false itself that its jibes against Hollywood fall short. Instead of piercing flesh and tinsel, the satiric shots almost slither off the screen.

The idea is fine; it's the script that's faulty. "Simone" begins with a sequence of impeccable images and inside-movie humor that makes the film seem almost foolproof. (It isn't.) We see, working at a major Hollywood studio (the soundstages are Warner Brothers', the entrance is Paramount's), Pacino's Viktor, a haggard, hard-living, perfectionist director and one-time Oscar nominee. Now, his commercial failures have jeopardized his career, even though his still-loving ex-wife Elaine (Catherine Keener), is the studio head.

When he clashes with his demanding, self-adoring star, Nicola Anders (a deadly little cameo by Wynona Ryder, who steals her scene), and Nicola walks off the picture, Viktor seems on catastrophe's brink. And he's only saved by a surprise visit from dying inventor/computer programmer Hank Aleno, who deeply admires Viktor and bequeaths him his ultimate high-tech creation: software that will produce a totally computer-generated actress, Simone, whom Viktor can then mold to his will. Viktor, commandeering a huge soundstage for his base of operations, digitally inserts Simone into the picture.

Hank then dies -- the first of the script's miscues. Hank's death leaves Viktor as the only person who knows about Simone, and the only person who can mold her image, put words in her mouth (by a kind of computer ventriloquism), insert her digitally into the picture and then operate the vast publicity machine to hoodwink the world into thinking she's a real legend. But surely it's ridiculous, even in a satire-fantasy, to imagine one man doing all this unaided, bringing off complex frauds -- Simone's Dodger Stadium concert, network TV interviews and several movie roles -- without tipping off almost anyone else involved, and all the while eluding bulldog tabloid reporter Max Sayer (Pruitt Taylor Vince).

"Simone" would have been far funnier and more satiric if it weren't a Pacino one-man show behind Simone -- if a team of studio deceivers had been involved, arguing among themselves -- or at least if the two-man combo of Viktor and Hank weren't shattered by death.

By the time the movie gets to its would-be killer twist, a presumed murder, it's lost the ability to seduce, surprise or even much amuse us. "Simone" is a genuine example of what ace science-fiction critic Damon Knight called the "idiot plot": a plot that can only succeed if everyone involved is an idiot. (In this case we have one genius, Viktor Taransky, and a world of idiots -- but it's still an idiot plot.)

Pacino, as always, is a virtuoso of sound and fury, biting off his lines like a maestro tearing through baloney -- though he's unhappily surrounded here by fine actors (like Keener and Koteas) doing little or nothing. Nothing stings here; little connects. Great movies about movies like "Sunset Boulevard," "8 1/2" or "The Player" succeed because of the way they re-create the bright illusion of the movie dream factory -- and the darker reality behind those illusions. But "Simone," despite its brilliant cast and astounding visuals -- despite Simone herself in all her CGI glory -- is all illusion, a fake about fakery. After a while, its very visual inventiveness -- and the wizard execution of the effects -- begins to get annoying.

If the movie weren't so beautifully visualized, it might not impose its viewpoint and might strike us as so ineffably trivial, such a waste of cast, technicians and a promising premise. What "Simone" does have is an incredible look, courtesy of production designer Jan Roelfs (esoteric film genius Peter Greenaway's regular collaborator), cinematographer Ed Lachman and the CGI team of visual effects producers Crystal Dowd and Susan Shin George. And it has Simone, too, of course. Rumor has it that "she" is not only a computer creation but partially realized from a human model. While the filmmakers say that Simone's on-screen presence is always pixelated, many press reports claim that she is really Canadian model Rachel Roberts. Is it the irony of ironies that a movie which finally gives us a computer-generated heroine has to use a human model to do it? Perhaps not. Irony is a weapon that, in "Simone" at least, is used like a virtual cudgel.

2 stars (out of 4)

Directed, produced and written by Andrew Niccol; photographed by Edward Lachman; edited by Paul Rubell; production designed by Jan Roelfs; music by Carter Burwell; executive producer Bradley Cramp. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday, Aug. 23. Running time: 1:57. MPAA rating: PG-13 (some sexuality).
Viktor Taransky -- Al Pacino
Elaine -- Catherine Keener
Lainey -- Evan Rachel Wood
Hal -- Jay Mohr
Max Sayer -- Pruitt Taylor Vince
Hank Aleno -- Elias Koteas Nicola Anders -- Winona Ryder

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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