Simone

Starring:
  • Scarface
  • Miss Five-Finger Discount
  • John Stamos' Wife

 

Directed by Andrew Niccol

"Hey, hey, hey, I'm sorry about that 'Full House' crack. I'm sure your husband never hit on the Olson twins, and I'm sure he's done quality work in the media arts since."

FrankenActress

Every so often—especially at an Applebees or TGI Fridays—I'll get introduced to some guy with a name like "Chase" or "Taylor" who, as his Mother/Agent will tell me, is on his way to Hollywood to "give acting a try." Oh, they're always flawless in the face (I often wonder how chicken pox manages to miss the Beautiful People), the blue button-up freshly pressed, and the hair is so carefully disheveled that it calls complete attention to the fact that it's so carefully disheveled. Usually, Chase and Taylor even consider taking "a couple of classes." If I can survive the initial glare of smile, I'll ask what compels them to bare their souls for the craft of acting. Mostly, as it turns out, the answer revolves around the nearly unanimous proclamation of their friends and neighbors that they look like, and thus should be, an actor. Which, when you hail from Springfield, Missouri, means that you may vaguely resemble Brad Pitt. Especially around the abs.

I don't know why my friends insist upon introducing me to these people, like we have some sort of bond just because we like movies. I'm just an internet film critic with a keen interest in the style of the French New Wave and the intellect of Stanley Kubrick; they wish to be photographed tugging at the arm of Sarah Michelle Gellar: The relationship is as awkward as a journalists convention headlined by Christopher Hitchens and Steve Kmenko. I thought about Chase and Taylor during Simone, which stars Al Pacino, who continues to make an art of looking like hell—genuinely disheveled. In the movie, he creates what Chase and Taylor aspire to be: artificial and bland, ready for public consumption. For Insomnia, the bags under Pacino's eyes hung like suitcases of guilt—I'm convinced that the effect was created by a botox injection gone horribly wrong, the skin melting right off his skull. Here, Pacino the Haggard spends long days in a big empty studio warehouse concocting the new star of his latest picture. Cutting and pasting from a palette of Hollywood darlings, Pacino cobbles together a Bacall/Hepburn/Garbo/Madonna/Streep/Monroe monster.

Pacino's character is named Viktor Taransky, which might rhyme with "Polansky." You see, Viktor is an "Artist" whose Art doesn't recoup the studio's cost, which put an irreconcilable strain on his marriage to Elaine (Catherine Keener, as yet another ball-busting studio shrew), and he's hoping that his next film will do for him what Polansky's The Pianist did at Cannes. After uber-diva Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder) walks out over the height of her trailer, Viktor sells his soul to science and revives his film, and thus, his life. The difference between Polansky and Taransky is this: Polansky made Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, and Tess, and thus is in much less in need of an immortal legacy; but to our knowledge, Taransky has only made wannabe Fellini films with titles like Eternity Forever. Of course, Viktor's creation swaths across the public landscape, swiping Oscars and People's Choice Awards from all those in her path—but the collateral damage is Taransky's respect as a filmmaker. He doesn't crave art; he craves recognition as an artist. So like any decently scary Shelleyian monster, Simone eventually returns to bestow justice upon her maker's vanity—as Viktor says, "She's indestructible."

The creator is Andrew Niccol, the writer/director of Gattaca and scribe of The Truman Show. Niccol is bothered by the disappearing boundaries between the artificial and the real; he sees film as a way to sort of redraw that line: Gattaca concerned a man in a future of genetic perfection trying to defeat the system to follow his dream of space travel; The Truman Show explores free will in the context of a extremely Calvinistic idea of God's Plan (Not only does God choose your path in life, he can make it rain right on head at any moment). Here, he attempts a mild satire of the entertainment industry within the Frankenstein myth, while developing his ideas on the nature and role of art in the technological future. Wrapped around a family drama. No wonder the tone of this film is tough to get a handle on.

As a writer, Niccol is as ambitious as they come, and his premises whet my appetite like a medium-rare steak. But as a director, he has no sense of drama, and his two directorial efforts are less juicy than the commercial promised. Niccol is developing a style (this New Zealander is clearly frightened by leaving the mainland for endless waters), but his most intriguing ideas bog down in the mud of his human relationships. His premises concern artificiality, but he mistakenly counterfeits his stories. Uma and Ethan may have sparked on the set of Gattaca, but there's little evidence of it onscreen; the same can be said for Pacino, Keener, and their daughter played by Evan Rachel Wood. The Truman Show works, I think, because Truman's central relationship is with the artificial world that's engulfed him—that is Niccol's territory as a writer, but his ideas exceed his capacity to sell them onscreen. That's why Truman Burbank needed Peter Weir, and why Viktor and Simone need him as well. The real relationship in Simone can only be between, like Truman and Seahaven, Viktor and his FrankenActress. Weir famously labored for years to make the artificiality of Seahaven believable for the audience, but Simone's Hollywood is as distant as Chase and Taylor's Brad Pitt dreams.

Still, Pacino's performance is enough to warrant my recommendation. I would have preferred Niccol not to insist upon Time proclaiming Simone "Person of the Year" and perhaps burrowed more deeply into the Hollywood backlots (as Robert Altman did in The Player), but it's really hard for me to completely dismiss a movie that professes, "Our ability to produce fraud has exceeded our ability to detect it." Thinking about Robert DeNiro and that lie detector leads me to believe that Al Pacino will be known as the legendary actor of his generation. A concentrated Pacino, as he is here, eludes my bullshit detector, and makes me wonder what Chase and Taylor would do if faced with a choice between Pacino's "Inside the Actor's Studio" or Todd Newton's "Whammy! The All-New Press Your Luck." Pacino seems genuinely aroused by the Kubrickian wet dream of actually being able to perform his actress's lines for her, and he might have done something special if the script had developed the idea of Simone as Art: artificial and manipulative in her construction, but genuine in the emotions she evokes—you know, like Halle Berry. By the end, Simone's defeat of Taransky is read in Pacino's hangdog face and collapsing posture. But as hard as Pacino tries to sell it, I couldn't buy Simone's existence—then again, I think she's a tremendous role model for Chase and Taylor. Maybe there is a lesson in a movie that offers us a dumpster full of cardboard cutouts of Winona Ryder.

The Pitch:
 
1 Gattaca
Plus
 
1 Making Mr. Right
Plus
 
1 Rebecca Romijn-Stamos
Equals
 
3 Simone
See It For:
Al explains to Winona that Hollywood produces will buy you blue jeans if you just ask for them.