Every so oftenespecially at an Applebees or TGI FridaysI'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 hellgenuinely 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 guiltI'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 pathbut
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 vanityas
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 himthat 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 evokesyou 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 existencethen
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.