Mark Reviews Movies

SIMONE

2 Ĺ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Andrew Niccol

Cast: Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Evan Rachel Wood, Rachel Roberts, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Winona Ryder, Jay Moore, Elias Koteas

MPAA Rating:  (for some sensuality)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 8/23/02



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Review by Mark Dujsik

With the advent and rapid growth of the capabilities of digital special effects technology and computer animation, the concept of a "synthespian"óa computer generated-creation that can pass as human in appearance and "talent"óhas emerged. In practice, the technology is not quite there, but Andrew Niccolís latest satire/social commentary Simone doesnít take the time to ponder the implications of the production of such a being but instead uses the setup for a more straightforward comic approach. Niccol is best known as the writer/director of Gattaca and the screenwriter of The Truman Show, both of which managed to equally tell a compelling story and tackle big ideas, but the ideas in Simone seem to be merely window dressing. There certainly is the possibility of a much more compelling and interesting story to be derived from this material. As a lightweight comedy, though, the movie offers a good deal of laughs, even if it is difficult to watch the movie without contemplating what could have been, especially on the few occasions a flash of genuine inspiration appears on the screen.

Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) has had a string of flops, and the way his newest movie is wrapping up, it seems as though he may have another failure on his hands. His leading lady, the famous and beloved Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder), has cited artistic differences and quit, ready to have her lawyers pounce on Taransky and the studio if she appears in a single frame of the film. He could recast, but with the arty material, the studio is convinced only Anders could sell it. So to add insult to injury, studio executive Elaine Christian (Catherine Keener), also Taranskyís ex-wife, lets him go. That same night though, an eccentric and dying computer programmer named Hank (Elias Koteas) approaches him on the lot and tells him that heís created a program that can create a true-to-life synthespian. At first he isnít interested, but his ventures to release his movie independently are still stuck on finding a new leading lady. In his last will and testament, Hank leaves the program to Taransky, who creates Simone (the name comes from her program "Simulation One") and places her in the film. Audiences and critics are overwhelmed by this new star, and Taransky isnít too keen on letting anyone in on the secret.

To keep his secret hidden, Taransky must keep his computer locked up in a studio where no one is allowed, speak to the press on Simoneís behalf, and convince the actors that she works alone and will be filmed separately from the rest of the cast. Of course, someone would eventually get suspicious, but that would ruin the premise, so the characters in the movie are working at a level lower than normal, thinking people. As a result, the jokes are much the same. Thereís no real ambition to move beyond simplistic, obvious humor, but it is well done. What elevates the material, though, is Al Pacino. Thereís a certain irony to the fact that a movie that toys with the concept of eliminating flesh and blood actors would contain a performance like this. Pacino, completely cast against type, plays Taransky as a bumbling, awkward, socially maladjusted pushover. This is a highly nuanced comedic performance, and Pacino somehow gives even the quietest delivery the intensity of a wired comic. Thereís no replacing acting like this, and Iím relatively convinced no computer creation could raise the stakes of a simple comedy as well as Pacino does here.

This could all be a side note with nothing to do with the success or failure of the material, as the movie doesnít seem to take a stand for or against such a practice. In fact, the lead synthespian is not a completely digital creation but the work of hereto-unknown Canadian model Rachel Roberts. In yet another huge irony, the technology dealt with in the movie is not available yet (up until a certain point, the studio lead people to believe that Simone was an entirely digital creation). Simone (or Roberts, however the whole thing was done) is not a good actress, even within the context of being a computer program. The characters in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within have more personality and show a much better example of how this technology can be used properly. Itís a bit farfetched to assume that Simone could become as big a star as she is presented here. The character is emptyóa shell without personality. The scenes involving her are lifeless, but fortunately the scenes with Taransky more than make up for them.

Simone is not a bad movie, just an unambitious one. I enjoyed its simple humor as much as I could, and Pacino elevates his material to high comedy in such a restrained manner, itís almost frightening. I canít recommend the movie, though. Its sights are aimed too low; the execution founders. I was amused but not intellectually stimulated, and thatís a shame.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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