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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Simone

Starring: Al Pacino, Catherine Keener
Director: Andrew Niccol
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 117 Minutes
Release Date: August 2002
Genres: Comedy, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Drama

*Also starring: Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jay Mohr, Jason Schwartzman, Winona Ryder, Barbra Rae, Robert Musgrave, Tony Crane, Evan Rachel Wood

Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

If you tuned into a news channel and heard your favorite blow- dried guy state that "escalating violence and the threat of all-out war have taken a back seat to news of tonight's Oscar nominations," would you believe your ears? Of course you would, because nothing deters people from talking, viewing, living the Oscars. Considering that the actual presentation of the awards is a yawn, why the big interest ? Why would one billion people the world over that's about one-fifth of the world's entire population (and probably includes a few ayatollahs tuning in from whatever hidden areas they inhabit), be so intent on this annual event? Why would every magazine from People to New Republic and maybe even North Korean News Online be enveloped by talk of Hollywood stars? Andrew Niccol's "Simone" does not answer the question as much as explore it and, wow! does he ever present what is likely to be the parody of the year, done without viciousness but with the light touch that makes "Simone" so absorbing, amusing, and revealing.

"Simone," which in some ways is a modern version of Mary Shelley's theme in her classic "Frankenstein" (about a scientist, seeking fame, who creates a monster that destroys its human creator), is about a digitalized actress who is so beautiful, so perfect in her roles, and so charming in her talks to TV interviewers and large audiences alike that she becomes an international idol. Simone is Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Madonna and Whitney Houston all wrapped up in one package. What the public does not know, however, is that she is not human but a collection of ones and zeros-- which could be what writer-director Niccol thinks of some current celebs worshiped even by people who never go to the movies or watch a concert.

The motive for Simone's creation arrives when failing director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) is hit by yet another setback when the neurotic star of an unfinished production, Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder), walks off the set. Ready to throw in the towel, Viktor is hustled by a dying software engineer, Hank (Elias Koteas), into accepting a computer program that could revive his career. When the skeptical director loads his large computer screen in his locked studio to discover a digitally designed beauty named Simone and "teaches" the faux presence on the computer to mimic his actions and the voices of some of Hollywood's greats, his career takes a heady upswing. When his next film, "Eternity Forever," draws unanimous raves from critics and audience alike, the press and adulating crowds demand to see its star in the flesh. By stalling repeatedly and making excuses for what he calls her agoraphobia, he finds that the public loves this "performer" ever more for her purported modesty.

Ironically, studios feel free to make movies sending up their industry ("The Player," for example, is Robert Altman's biting examination of Hollywood greed and power) because think of this there is nothing that Hollywood can do to diminish its hold on the imagination of its huge audience. A studio publicizing a blockbuster could probably put up a poster highlighting not the plaudits of critics ("greatest movie of the summer," "a roller- coaster of an adventure") but of its most caustic criticisms ("a bomb skip it and wait for the video and when the video comes out, skip that too") with little impact on box office. Why so? Possibly because (if I recall a term paper I once did for Psychology 101) individuals will obsessively seek to merge what they perceive as their small selves into something greater which is why following and rooting for professional sports teams is so popular from Kansas City to Kierabati and why housewives and executives alike might freely discuss their opinions of Nic Cage's marriage to Elvis Presley's daughter.

Simone is credited "as herself" and is indeed a creation of the studio's digital effects team. The story Simone herself and her vast crowd of followers occasionally takes a back seat to the human yarn of a lonely man who has outlived his fifteen minutes of fame and who seeks recognition from his public and a return to the home of his ex-wife, studio head Elaine (Catherine Keener) and the daughter, Lainey (Evan Rachel Wood) who conspires to get her parents together. With a supporting cast sporting comic touches especially Elias Koteas as a software producer whose Frankenstein creation literally did kill him; Pruitt Taylor Vince as a National Enquirer type of journalist who sees a chance for a Pulitzer if he can deconstruct the Simone story; and the lovely Evan Rachel Wood as Viktor's young daughter (who reminds me of a young Bridget Fonda); "Simone" succeeds admirably, with abundant laughs, in mirroring our own foibles, our own preoccupation with celebrity and our refusal to admit that the big names are people who put their pants on one leg at a time just like us.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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