movie film review | chris tookey


© 2002-New Line Cinema - all rights reserved
  Simone Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
5.36 /10
Viktor Taransky: Al Pacino , Elaine: Catherine Keener , Lainey Taransky: Evan Rachel Wood
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Directed by: Andrew Niccol
Written by: Andrew Niccol

Released: 2002
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 117

The wittiest, most original film of its year, one of the sharpest satires yet on Hollywood, and among the most topical and important comments ever made on the power of celebrity.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Its New Zealand-born writer-director-producer Andrew Niccol leaped to prominence with two films I thought overrated, The Truman Show and Gattaca. So I suppose there is a poetic justice in the fact that this far superior work is being so short-sightedly trashed.

Al Pacino is typically exuberant as Viktor Taransky, a film director who hasn't had a hit for ten years. His last chance of a comeback is scuppered when his egotistical leading actress (played with hilarious scariness by Winona Ryder) walks out after making a series of demands that border on the insane (but are, in fact, real demands made by equally crazed actresses over the past few years).

The departing star offers to cite "creative differences". At which Viktor becomes incandescent. "Creative differences? The difference is: you're not creative!"

Driven half-bonkers by Hollywood actors' insistence on placing themselves above "the work", by which Viktor means at least partially himself, he suffers the further indignity of being fired by his studio boss and ex-wife (Catherine Keener).

Whereupon Opportunity knocks, in the off-putting form of Hank (Elias Koteas), a one-eyed nerd who may be Viktor's one remaining fan, and who wants the director to use some new software he has designed. Viktor wants nothing to do with Hank, who is clearly just another failed Hollywood whacko.

A few weeks later, Hank has been killed by a brain tumour incurred from sitting for eight years solid in front of his computer screen; and Viktor inherits Hank's software anyway. It provides Viktor with the perfect leading actress (played in part by Rachel Roberts), one who combines the best qualities of all previous screen goddesses, and who is photogenic putty in a director's hands. Hank called her Simulation One, but Viktor shortens her to the catchier S1mone.

Hank's creation is, in fact, not so far ahead of modern technology. We've already had a digital actress starring in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and she was no more artificial-looking than some of her living counterparts.

There is something of Garbo and Audrey Hepburn about S1mone - hardly surprising, since their faces and voices have been programmed into her. Her glamour makes Viktor's next two movies into hits; and her fellow actors, used to working with stars who make unreasonable demands, don't worry overmuch that they have to act their scenes without her physical presence.

Such is the power of her celebrity that everyone wants to claim that they've met her, even though they haven't; and this enables Viktor to cover up the fact that she doesn't exist.

Viktor makes it seem as if S1mone and he are having an affair, partly for his self-esteem, partly in order to make his ex-wife jealous, and he thoroughly enjoys his new reputation as a Svengali. Unfortunately, he soon becomes aware that S1mone's celebrity is outshining his own. And when he tries to get his own back by diminishing her image, he finds that nothing he can force her to do or say makes the slightest difference.

He can't harm her even when he makes her appear, smoking and spaced out, on a chat show and she speaks out in favour of guns for schoolchildren ("I just think all elementary schools should have shooting ranges") and fur coats ("God invented furry animals to be worn"). She gains a reputation as being outspoken, and becomes more popular than ever.

And when he manufactures a pretentious art-house flick that pretends to be S1mone's directorial debut, in which she wallows in pigswill, feeds from a trough and proclaims in the title "I am pig", the starstruck critics rise to applaud her fearlessness.

Desperate measures are called for, but even these do not have the results that Viktor anticipates…

S1mone is funny, sharp and beautifully written, with a leading character in Viktor who has just the right comedic blend of making the audience like him, yet enjoy his come-uppance when his attempts at control-freakery go awry.

S1mone does require the same suspension of disbelief that you needed when reading Alice in Wonderland or viewing Being John Malkovich. Not only do you have to take the user-friendliness of the technology that created Simone on trust; you have to believe that Pacino's wily director could really keep his project secret from prying journalists and entertainment executives.

I can see how this might be too big a stretch for some. However, it's part of Niccol's point that Pacino's lie becomes powerful because so many people wish it to be true. This is a world so obsessed with "image", it simply isn't interested in the reality.

S1mone is bound to be unpopular within Hollywood because beneath the obvious exaggerations there is truth. Robert Altman's much-praised "satire" on Hollywood, The Player, actually avoided insulting those people upon whom Altman depends, especially the actors. Niccol goes in with both fists.

Catherine Keener is terrific as a quintessential movie executive, totally corrupted by money and power yet blissfully unaware of the fact, and indeed morally patronising to anyone who doesn't subscribe to her miserable values.

S1mone is the Hollywood equivalent of To Die For - another movie disliked by entertainment moguls, because it showed the grasping ferocity of showbiz culture, and the grinning skull beneath the smiling face of celebrity.

Niccol bravely doesn't let the public off the hook either, for their appetite for mindless hero-worship. And he is at pains to show that journalists, as well as entertainment executives, collude in the process - a truth which is hardly likely to endear him to critics, who are after all just journalists who spend too long in darkened rooms.

A final reason S1mone won't become a commercial hit is that a lot of people simply don't understand irony. All the same, this is a fresh and brilliant comedy. And I can't help but be enthusiastic about any film that captures the mindless idolatry, the grotesquely distorted values, the collective lunacy that have just elevated Princess Diana to the Top 10 Britons of all time, at the expense of such clearly insignificant figures as Charles Dickens, J.M.W.Turner and Jane Austen.

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