Every season has one genuinely good film that goes largely overlooked by audiences. This Summer, that film would have to be writer/director Andrew Niccol's "Simone", a thought-provoking and well-acted film that only suffers from the film being a bit too overlong. Director/writer Niccol is largely known for writing the Jim Carrey vehicle "The Truman Show", but should receive more notice for his directing debut, 1997's "Gattaca", a film that I consider a whisper away from perfection.
Al Pacino stars in "Simone" as Victor Taranski, a director who had his rise to fame in the 70's and now is depressed to find himself in an era where more concern is geared towards financial statements than quality films that are about something. To top things off, the star (Winona Ryder) of his latest film has just walked off the set after her ludicrious demands weren't met. His ex-wife, who's now the studio head (Catherine Keener) reveals that, after this episode, his contract will likely not be renewed.
When everything's fallen apart, Taransky is visited by a computer engineer (Elias Koteas) who he watched be booed off the stage at a convention nearly a decade ago. He's about to pass away, but he's recently finished "Simulation One", a virtual reality program that can create a digital actress or actor. Taransky doesn't accept, but the program finds its way into his hands thanks to the fact that the computer engineer left it to him in his will. Curious, Taransky starts work and - 9 months later - finds that he's actually been able to remove the Ryder character from the entire movie and replace her with Simone (model Rachel Roberts in her debut).
Taransky wanted nothing more than the movie to be completed. While he clearly doesn't predict success, Simone becomes an enormous hit. Instead of revealing that she's a digital creation, Taransky goes ahead with the cover-up, leading to bigger and bigger methods of deception to try and hide the truth from a population that has fallen for the "actress".
Niccol clearly was on the right track with the idea behind "Simone", but it seems as if the screenplay was in need of some tightening before cameras rolled. The film's theories about real vs. fake and several other topics are fairly well-stated, although they tend to become muddled as the movie starts to become overlong in the last act. While an interesting story, it's also a rather slight one; while I was never bored, a good 20-25 minutes of editing could have helped the story run cleaner.
On the other hand, I was greatly pleased to see that Niccol's visual style that he started in "Gattaca" continues here. Niccol and cinematographer Edward Lachman ("Erin Brockovich") wonderfully attempt to recreate the same clean visual style that Slavomir Idziak and Niccol did with "Gattaca". Again, especially with the studio lot sequences, scenes are washed with a pure light and subtle yellowed tone. There's also Niccol's tendency to present conversations in front of vast, empty surroundings (similar to a lot of scenes in Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" and "Royal Tenenbaums"), which surprisingly actually brings the viewer closer in. From a technical standpoint, the one element that came up as rather disapointing was Carter Burwell's score; while I've often praised the composer's brilliant, brilliant work in the past, his score here didn't sit well with me and often either didn't add much to the scenes or came up in scenes where score didn't feel necessary.
"Simone"'s performances are mixed, if largely pleasing. Pacino contributes one of his most low-key performances in recent memory, but still manages to offer a lively character. Evan Rachel Wood, as Taransky's caring daughter, is also a highlight. Keener does fine with a character that isn't particularly written with much depth. The oddest duo are Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman as tabloid reporters after Simone. While the two actors provide fine performances, the characters really don't have a great deal of point in the story and I almost felt as if their characters could have been deleted entirely. Winona Ryder contributes a nice minor few moments as the demanding actress and Rachel Roberts is fine in her scenes as Simone (although a concert sequence where she sings "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman" is too cutesy.)
"Simone" is a flawed movie - it becomes a bit scattered as a result of its extended running time and not all of the characters or possibilities with the stories are realized. The film also never quite figures on whether it wants to be more of a comedy or a drama. However, it's a movie that's well-acted, shows some ambition despite elements that are a bit predictable and has scenes that are certainly thought-provoking and should encourage discussion after the film. As it's likely playing for the last week in theaters, "Simone" should be considered for viewing either at a matinee or when it arrives on DVD, likely later this year.