The streets of lower Manhattan are deserted–also spotlessly clean and glowing in the light of the golden hour–when the studio head takes the movie director outside to tell him he’s washed up. Those were great dreams he had in New York in the old days, with Cassavetes, but they’re over. How it must wound the director to hear these words in Hollywood, on a mere back-lot simulacrum of New York–and from his own ex-wife! How it must shame him to hear the name of Cassavetes! Although the director claims to be the last American auteur, who is being fired because he won’t compromise, we’ve seen some of the picture he was shooting, and it looks less like Cassavetes than a feature-length ad for “Dysfunction” by Calvin Klein.
But Hollywood holds out hope even for a moviemaker who’s so pretentious that he spells his first name “Viktor.” The director receives a genie in a bottle–or, in this case, a wonderful computer program on a hard drive. This gift puts into his hands a virtual actress, or synthespian, who can be molded exactly as he wishes and secretly inserted into his not-quite-finished movie. The computer program is known as Simulation One; the virtual actress, as Simone. When the picture is released, it will be Simone, not Viktor, who wins the public’s unconditional love–after which it’s only a matter of time before he’s struggling to shove the genie back into its bottle.
“Our ability to manufacture fraud,” muses the director, “now exceeds our ability to detect it.” These words will do to sum up a theme that has emerged in the work of Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed Simone. He first made a name for himself as the screenwriter of The Truman Show, in which Jim Carrey unwittingly resided on a TV soundstage the size of an entire village. Niccol next wrote and directed Gattaca, a futuristic fantasy about a world where you have to be physically perfect, or else. Now comes Simone, a story about the public’s adoration for an actress who is too good to be true, and isn’t. “Simone has the voice of the young Lauren Bacall, the body of Sophia Loren and the face of Audrey Hepburn crossed with an angel,” raves one critic about the new star. “Almost right,” the director mutters.
You will observe that Simone is not a fraudulent contest winner, phony political reformer or bogus war hero (to mention only three of the impostors who populate Preston Sturges’s movies, and so define the great tradition of American screen comedy). Simone is a mirage of femininity, projected by a man who can make her into just what he wants a woman to be. Conversely, when Viktor turns against her, he can make Simone into his image of everything he finds horrifying in a woman. Since the director is simultaneously trying to win back his ex-wife (Catherine Keener, in another of her hard-as-peanut-brittle roles), we can judge how well his fantasies match reality.
It would be enough for me if Simone played out these ideas consistently and well. But it does even more–because Viktor is portrayed by Al Pacino. If you’ve seen him as the suffering detective in Insomnia, you’ve had a recent reminder of how overbearing he can be. Part of the pleasure of Simone is to see him give pretty much the same baggy-eyed performance as Viktor, yet make the character come out funny. Who better than Pacino to take on the role of a director, railing against those self-regarding actors who think they’re more important than the movie? And who better to be transformed into a porcelain-skinned blonde? Simone “acts” by mirroring her director’s gestures and speech–which means she’s a Victoria’s Secret version of Pacino, right down to the hands spreading apart as if they were pulling taffy.