The premise of New Line Cinema’s current release, Simone, is hardly original. Its exploration of the sexual politics of the “man-made woman” derives from the classic Pygmalion story–of the King of Cyprus who fell in love with a statue of his own creation–and resonates with any number of films that riff on the theme of the male artist and his “creation,” including Metropolis, Bride of Frankenstein, Educating Rita and Weird Science.
It may be that Simone feels like a breath of fresh air because, not only is it funny, but it also addresses its audience as mature adults. In other words, Farrelly fans and Austin Powers acolytes may want to stay home: There’s only one toilet joke. But this is not to say that the film, written and directed by New Zealand-born Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show, Gattaca), fails to entertain. Niccol coaxes marvelous performances out of a first-rate cast including Al Pacino who plays a film director of dubious talent, Viktor Taransky, (a contrast from Pacino’s normally dark character roles) Raleigh native Evan Rachel Wood as Taransky’s daughter Lainie, Winona Ryder as a troublesome diva and Catherine Keener as Elaine Christian, studio executive and Taransky’s ex-wife.
As Viktor Taransky, Pacino offers an impeccable sense of timing and a surprisingly relaxed physicality. After being sacked by his studio when lead actress Ryder walks off the set, Taransky inherits a computer program from a crazed, one-eyed fan named Hank (Elias Koteas), that allows him to replace the difficult actress with “sim one”–Simone (Rachel Roberts)–a digital amalgamation of Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Jane Fonda and Taransky himself. Simone assumes the starring role and immediately becomes a huge celebrity, but not without a price.
Taransky finds it increasingly difficult to keep his latest phenomenon hidden from starstruck fans and unscrupulous tabloid press (Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman) and he also begins to question his motivations for exploiting the magic of tinsel town technology. His relationships with others become more complex and potentially problematic: One young actress asks him to call her “Simone” as they make love and Keener (who expresses a personal and professional interest in Simone) comes to resent her relationship with Taransky. Only his relationship with computer-savvy Lainie remains stable after Simone morphs into their lives.
In one scene Taransky waxes nostalgic, reminding Elaine of their glory days with John Cassavetes, a director whose aesthetic was synonymous with the New York art and music scene of the 1960s. Elaine will have none of it, however, reminding him that she has kept him on the payroll since their divorce not because his art films were good, but because she didn’t want to humiliate him in front of their daughter. The studio backlot setting for the conversation ads visual and emotional texture: the battle between New York art and L.A. commerce is played out against the studio’s simulated and depopulated city streets where the only vehicle in sight is the absurd golf cart that Keener drives.
The oversaturated color and repeated juxtapositions of set and backdrop recall the homey artificiality of The Truman Show’s Sea Haven. In several scenes, the studio backlot where Taransky works is framed by lush green hills that might themselves be a backdrop. The cinematography contributes to the self-referentiality of Niccol’s satire. Like Taransky, he cannot resist the magic of cinema, even though he knows the audience is not fooled. In one scene–a homage to Fellini–Niccol choreographs a party of Hollywood A-listers literally tripping over themselves in their efforts to meet Simone in the flesh; in another, he lovingly mocks the cerebral tone of Taransky’s namesake, Russian director Andre Tarkovsky.
Part of the reason Pacino is so appealing in his role as Taransky is the delicious irony of a highly respected New York method-actor playing a director who is fed up with kissing the buffed and massaged backsides of often untalented, but always demanding actors. Taransky’s dismissive attitude seems to be dictated by industry practices and he shows little respect for the profession of acting as he constructs Simone–reducing the amount of Streep in her voice and cranking up the Bacall. The film doesn’t take a stand against replacing troublesome human actors with compliant “syn-thespians” (or “vactors,” as Hank calls them), rather, benignly mocks the mentality behind the entire cinematic enterprise.
Inevitably, comparisons will be made to the movie Tootsie: Although Simone avoids the retrograde gender politics of Tootsie, it does engage similar questions about gender and identification. Mercifully, Niccol avoids drag jokes, choosing to complicate the relationship between Taransky and Simone so that, while it resonates with both Pygmalion and Frankenstein, it never approaches melodrama or mere slapstick. The most important relationship in the film is between father and daughter, not between master and muse, or man and ex-wife. This emotional focus works in the film’s favor, in part because it taps into Pacino’s ambiguous sexuality.
The laughs Simone elicits–and there are quite a few–have to do with ideas, not idiocy. It’s a treat to see Pacino in a comedy and to see the lovely and amazingly talented Catherine Keener in anything. Simone is worth a look as a reminder of what comedy can be in the hands of grownups.