Robert Oppenheimer felt that way about the atomic bomb. He gave it birth, but he wished maybe he hadn't. Many have shared the regret of invention. Alexander Graham Bell was sorry to have invented the telephone when he had to get his teen-age daughter her own private line and couldn't get her off it long enough to do her homework. Guglielmo Marconi was desperately unhappy about inventing the radio the day a kid with a boom box sat next to him on a bus. And, of course, Dr. Frankenstein really made a mistake when he brought his monster to life. To that list of rueful creators we can now add Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) in writer-director Andrew Niccol's Simone. Viktor has created the most beautiful, talented, devoted, professional and loving woman ever to grace the big screen. And he hates her guts.
Simone's Viktor Taransky is a Hollywood filmmaker with all the right values except his understanding that they call it show business not show art. Some years ago, Taransky won an Oscar in the short-subject category, and he went on thereafter to helm a series of studio-financed features, some of them critically well-received, all of them financial flops. As Simone opens, Viktor is just finishing his latest film, a weeper called Sunrise, Sunset (which is a nice metaphor for Viktor's meteoric career). Only a few days of shooting are left when Viktor's temperamental star Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder in an effective and graceful turn of self-parody) walks off the picture because her trailer is several inches shorter than her co-stars'. We subsequently learn that Nicola's contract requires that someone remove all the red jelly beans from the candy bowls delivered to her, and that any hotel room she's assigned be stocked with seven packs of cigarettes, three of them open.
In short, Nicola is a monster that Hollywood created but Viktor didn't. When she leaves the picture, she threatens to sue if any of her footage is ever released, and the studio chief, Elaine Christian (Catherine Keener), Viktor's ex-wife as it happens, decides to pull the plug on the whole project. Moreover, she decides to cancel Viktor's contract. He isn't going to finish Sunrise, Sunset, and he isn't going to get financing for any other movie -- ever.
Then fate smiles on Viktor with its inevitable snaggle of teeth. Dying computer whiz Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas) bequeaths to Viktor a program that will enable the director to create "synthespians," or all-electronic actors. Viktor decides to use this program to design a star to step in for the departed Nicola. Simulation One is her name, or, for short, SimOne (Rachel Roberts in a capable but uncredited performance that shrouds her bosses with the stench of hypocrisy!). Simone can be a little bit Michelle Pfeiffer and a little bit Ingrid Bergman. She can have Audrey Hepburn's smile and Lauren Bacall's distinctively deep voice. Best of all, she will show up on time, she will always know her lines, she will never balk at either nudity or physical stunts, and she will tell the press that her director is a genius. She will win Oscars and almost single-handedly make her pictures financially successful.
So what's not to like? Well, the press pestering you all the time about her whereabouts and, worse, the critics giving her all the credit for your creative achievement.
Simone is a hoot, an indictment of Hollywood excess in the tradition, not of Robert Altman's hard-edged The Player but rather of such lighter fare as Frank Oz's Bowfinger, Barry Primus' The Mistress or Albert Brooks' The Muse. Simone is a little uneven, funnier in the early and late going but sagging a bit in the middle. And it fails ever to make a key element of the plot work. Viktor remains connected to his studio-chief ex through their darling teen-age daughter Lainey (Evan Rachel Wood, Billy Campbell's daughter on TV's Once and Again). And for reasons mostly unclear, Viktor hankers to get Elaine back. Catherine Keener, meanwhile, is stuck with a role she's playing too often, that of a hard-nose bitch. She's even got a boy toy, just as she did recently in Lovely and Amazing. Once Viktor gets his career back on track, we can't fathom why he yearns for reconciliation with someone who has treated him with such dismissive cruelty.
Still, plenty enough of Simone works to make it a treat. We can anticipate the broad moves of the plot, but there are plenty of delightful surprises along the way. The picture has some astute points to make about America's destructive cult of celebrity. And the comedy writing is unusually crisp. I will forgive much in a movie that makes me laugh out loud, but so few do. Simone does. Without resorting to anything crude or cheap, it delivers a potful of belly laughs.
- It's alive! (Or is it?) Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) contemplates his 'creation' in Andrew Niccol's Simone.