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[whitespace] 'Simone'
When You Wish Upon a Star: The mysterious Simone can't join Al Pacino and Catherine Keener for the opening night of 'Eternity Forever' in 'Simone.'


Al Pacino comes alive in conversations with himself in 'Simone'

By Richard von Busack

LATELY, Al Pacino has been responding less and less to his fellow actors; that flickering, lizardlike gaze is clouding up. Pacino is better than usual in the comedy Simone because he has so many scenes in his own company.

He plays a puppet master--a film director named Viktor Taransky who lucks into a secret computer animation program. On an empty soundstage, Taransky works with a synthetic actor whose voice, gestures and look he can control. With Simone on the screen, echoing his movements, he can have conversations with himself. Pacino warms up to this premise; he gets interested, and interesting, again.

Simone is based on an old story. In the Greek myth, Pygmalion carves a statue of the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, and falls in love with it. The goddess finds out and grants the statue life. The former statue takes the name Galatea, and creator and creation live happily ever after.

The myth's happy ending confounds our expectations. We're raised with the stern warning not to worship idols. And ever since George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (the source for My Fair Lady), we also suspect that a girl shaped by a mentor must rebel.

On its own, the story must be the least feminist of Greek myths; the way it approves of men molding women is very clear. That makes for an uneasy story today, and changing the ending is hard. So Simone is as good as a movie can be without having a third act.

Taransky is director on the skids, having been fired from his own picture, thanks to a conceited star (Winona Ryder). He's approached by a mad computer genius named Henry Aleno (probably "alone" scrambled), played by Elias Koteas. The madman has a gob of cotton in his eye, held in by a patch. Metastasized eye cancer, he explains, caused by too much staring at a computer screen. In his last few days of life, he wants to give this cult director he loves a present: software containing a synthetic performer named "Simone" (Rachel Roberts).

It dawns on Taransky that he can outwit the egotistical stars who have ruined his career--all those "supermodels with SAG cards." He can use Simone to finish his interrupted project, a movie tautologically titled "Eternity Forever."

Simone is an enormous success, and the fact that she won't appear in public makes her all the more fascinating. A pair of bumbling detectives (Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman) try to track her down but can't expose the "synthespian." As Taransky says, "Our ability to create fraud exceeds our ability to detect it."

Director Andrew Niccol, who did the well-conceived but far-too-mannered Gattaca and scripted The Truman Show, is satirizing some of his own ideas about artistic manipulation. Taransky isn't just a misunderstand genius. The clips we see of his films look excruciatingly arty; it's easy to understand why they're not selling tickets.

In Eternity Forever, the skies are filtered beyond just the usual "futuristic" copper-green hue of the ozone in perfume commercials or, for that matter, Gattaca. Niccol turns up the color to the point of ridiculousness, so that in Eternity Forever, Simone and her co-star (Jay Mohr) pose existentially under a sky as bile-colored as a koi pond.

To contrast the grating aestheticism of Taransky's films, Niccol cleverly uses backgrounds of vintage Hollywood décor, circa the 1920s, when designers went nuts about Spanish colonial.

The 1920s references recall the movie industry in the days when it was most seriously prone to illusion and star creation. That Spanish fanciness also refers to the age of Garbo, when reticence was more exciting than total media exposure. Like Garbo, Simone is the anti-Vin Diesel. But Diesel has his critics, and what's aggravating is that there's no backlash to Simone's perfection. It's certain that Taransky's adoring young daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) will be the one to expose Simone, but why does it take so long? And why does her mother (Catherine Keener) also think Simone is so precious?

Keener plays the head of the studio and Taransky's ex. I may be going on a little too much about Keener lately, after Full Frontal and Lovely & Amazing, but she's exciting because she defers to no man--she isn't intimidated by the actors she works with. She spurs them on; she's a critic's ally.

The first sense you get that Pacino is going to be alert for this movie comes early. In a self-pitying moment, Taransky starts to reminisce about the grand tradition of Cassavetes, and Keener's character interjects, "Oh, here we go again." (Usually in the movies when a man talks about his dreams, the women are intent on every pearl of wisdom.)

Keener keeps Pacino off-balance, while his eerily perfect imaginary co-star exposes Pacino's tendency toward hermetic acting. That's why the slumping ending is redeemed by the first two acts. For once in a long time, Pacino doesn't seem like a synthespian himself.

Simone (PG-13; 117 min.), directed and written by Andrew Niccol, photographed by Edward Lachman and starring Al Pacino, Rachel Roberts and Catherine Keener, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the August 22-28, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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