Newsflash: Hollywood people lie. And Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) is one of them. At the beginning of Simone, the self-proclaimed auteur is trying to keep a rein on his portentous star, Nicola (Winona Ryder), a “supermodel with a SAG card” who’s peeved that her trailer is not as tall as someone else’s. He’s behind schedule, running out of money, and really tired of removing the red jellybeans from Nicola’s contract-specified munchie bowl. To top off Viktor’s bad day, he’s fired off his own movie, by the Amalgamated Film Studio suit who happens to be his ex-wife, Elaine (Catherine Keener).
Even as he is encouraged to persevere by his frighteningly well-adjusted daughter, Lainey (Evan Rachel Wood), Viktor is, for the moment, despondent, believing that his career is over. And then his life changes: while leaving the lot late at night, he’s approached by twitchy, unhinged-looking computer geek Hank (Elias Koteas). Feeling Viktor’s pain, Hank offers him the solution to all his problems: software.
“Simulation One,” or “Simone” (or even “s1m0ne,” as the film’s title is sometimes written), is the consummate performer, precisely because she is “not real.” As such, she marks a rote opposition between “real” humans and “unreal” fantasies (“Who needs humans?” fumes Hank, himself dying of a tumor developed by spending all his time with his machinery). You can make her look any way you want, say anything you want, insert her in any situation, opposite any other performer; she never complains, never makes demands, never has “artistic differences,” never says a word except the ones you script (or, as Viktor does, speak) for her. She is perfect, particularly if you’re a middle-aging man feeling anxious about your lack of clout and in need of unambiguous adoration from a gorgeous young thing.
She is also Viktor, reflected back to him. And Simone considers the ways that such reflections shape those who gaze on them. It’s about movies and money, deceit and desire, and how hard it is to see the differences between what’s “real” from what’s not. Locked up in an empty soundstage, surrounded only by monitors and the computer running the Simone program, Viktor rhapsodizes, “We have stepped into a new dimension. Our ability to manufacture fraud has exceeded our ability to detect it.” While such rhetoric seems a reaction to last year’s Final Fantasy scare (actors will be replaced!), it’s also a familiar theme for writer-director Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed the haunting Gattaca and wrote the overrated Truman Show. He says Simone is about the Dream Factory, telling the Los Angeles Times: “We live vicariously through celebrities. People used to say that celebrities are America’s royalty; now I think celebrities are the world’s royalty.” Like I say: newsflash.
To elaborate on what seems obvious, Simone works a series of sardonic metaphors. On receiving Hank’s package, Viktor emerges from his beach house a significant nine months later, with his new protégé in tow. Or rather, in Sunrise Sunset, replacing Nicola. Tall, willowy, and blond (composed of bits/bytes from Viktor’s own favorite icons, including Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly), Simone (Rachel Roberts, digitally reworked) is an instant star. (AOL is encouraging you to vote a collective “Simone,” using facial parts from today’s stars, including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, et. al. — this would be the current state of “interactive media.”)
Though her performance, as far you see it, is stilted at best, Simone receives “rave” reviews. Initially cynical at the grand success of his deception (“A star is digitized,” he muses), Viktor soon accepts the love: as “the man who discovered Simone,” he’s deemed a genius and a star by association. No longer an art-house nobody, Viktor signs a three picture deal with Amalgamated, and soon taps out his next masterpiece, the aptly titled Eternity Forever (in which Simone utters the immortal line, “Love is like a wildflower, but that flower only grows on the edge of a very high cliff”).
With all eyes on Simone, the celebrity-making system kicks into high gear: Simone does an interview by remote (she’s “on location”), pitches a perfume, appears on magazine covers (In Style, Time, Us), wins an Oscar, and becomes a pop star, complete with an album, Splendid Isolation, and a live show before a stadium throng who doesn’t (want to) perceive that she’s a holographic image, with Mary J. Blige providing vocals for “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman.” The crowd, as they say, goes wild. At show’s end, Simone gushes, “Never stop believing!”
Presuming that you know better, the film skewers characters who do believe. Aside from sucker-fans, Simone mocks box-office-obsessed execs; self-serving “talent” (Simone’s costar, Hal [Jay Mohr], rides along in her wake, pretending he’s met her to up his cool factor); and stupid-cow reporters. These last, of course, are represented by the requisite tabloid hacks, Milton (Jason Schwartzman) and the unsubtly named Max Sayer (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who lusts after his subject so completely that he convinces himself that Viktor’s fake hotel room layout is “real,” fondling “her” lingerie, laying on “her” bed, tasting “her” toothbrush.
This scene, like most everything else in Simone, takes aim at an easy target (who doesn’t revile the bottom-feeding bloiders?). The broad-comedy-as-insider-critique is at once cursory and smug. As the only nonbeliever in sight, Viktor provides a particularly contemptuous position from which to observe the proceedings; his disdain for Simone’s zillions of disciples intensifies as they increasingly overlook his brilliance, and he resembles more and more his namesake, Victor Frankenstein, overwhelmed by his own creation.
No surprise, Viktor and Simone provide the film’s most detailed, compelling relationship. Or perhaps more accurately, Viktor and Viktor. He sees his most attractive, resourceful, and prolific self in Simone: “I’m so relaxed around you, I’m so myself,” he coos to her image. Her responses are his to himself, spoken into a mic and returned in the voice he’s conjured for her. Her gestures mirror his, her expressions are his transformed. One of the film’s more hysterical scenes (in all senses of the word) occurs as Viktor dons lipstick in order to put Simone’s “kisses” on autographed photos, at the same time that he’s engineering her concert performance from a sound booth. All his manic activity leads to chaos. On one hand, he appears oddly transgendered, emulating and simultaneously producing Simone’s “feminine” appearance. On another hand, when he’s discovered with lipstick smeared all over his mouth, he looks to be Simone’s lover, so consumed with passion for her that he’s lost control over his own “manly” appearance.
You know better: he’s been making love to himself. And this is Simone‘s key insight, the elaborate gendering, de-gendering, and re-gendering processes that allow all levels of self-love in La-La Land. Viktor doesn’t quite understand this aspect of his fantasy, believing that he’s in charge. At wit’s end over Simone’s mammoth popularity (and his declining importance), he tries to fess up to Elaine, declaring, “I made Simone.” Elaine, at once jealous of his rumored romance with his star and capable of a more realistic view, corrects him: “Viktor, Simone made you.”
Like everyone else, Viktor believes what he needs to believe. His eventual, inevitable realization, that he resents his reflected glory and wants to “be” his own man, leads to efforts to destroy Simone. First he tries to ruin her reputation (having her appear to be a slutty, brainless, big-mouthed drunk, as if this would turn anyone off a celebrity), and then he infects her with a virus, using a big old 5-1/4 inch disk (conveniently labeled “Plague”) that causes her pixels to fall away in a corny cascade.
But Viktor can no more kill Simone than he can kill himself. It doesn’t matter what’s “real” or “fake,” or even what movie made the most money last weekend. It only matters what you believe. And if, in a culture suffused with tie-in marketing, flag-waving, and party politicking, you can believe you have dominion over what you believe, so be it.