Any movie can be made to look much worse than it really is by a trailer that innacurately suggests the film is a broadly-played non-stop parade of knee-slapping, rib-tickling, belly laughs. Yes, there are some pretty broad scenes in Simone — and some actually as funny as the filmmaker thinks they are — but all in all, the film is a surprisingly adult examination of the power of myth, specifically the wholly manufactured myths of the modern age.
In many quarters, the film is being taken as little more than a comedic meditation on the coming day when a computer generated actor can be used to replace human beings. That idea is at the core of Simone’s plot, but I’m not at all certain that it’s the movie’s true raison d’etre, which is to grapple with modern myths in a much broader sense.
Pacino’s character, an absurdly egocentric “art” movie director, Viktor Taransky, is presented as a down-on-his-luck filmmaker in need of a hit film to revive his career. Two things quickly become clear: he always was a hopelessly artsy filmmaker, and he seems to be forever making almost exactly the same tendentious movie. He’s a man living a myth of his own making. It’s ironic, then, that he should create another myth — in the artificially generated Simone — that threatens to overtake his myth, even in his own mind. There’s more irony still. Everyone — even Viktor’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener) — is convinced that Simone is the sole reason for his newfound success, not realizing that she represents the most perfect expression of Viktor’s vision ever to hit the screens. Simone’s every move, every expression, even her every vocal inflection is an exact reflection of Viktor. Completely fooled, the world at large ends up buying into Viktor’s myth – a myth that overshadows his own. (Historically, it’s not all that much different from the star aura of Marlene Dietrich overcoming that of her directorial mentor, Josef von Sternberg, or the Karloff cult taking most of the thunder from James Whale in Frankenstein, which is doubly and deliciously ironic in a film about a “man who made a monster.”) Beyond this, it’s a myth that refuses to be destroyed — or, more correctly, a myth the adherents of which refuse to have destroyed (which, of course, is the true power of all myths).
All this — and more — is within the confines of Simone and that’s also part of the film’s problem: it’s about too many things at once. That’s certainly a pleasant change from the vast array of movies that aren’t really about anything at all, but it makes Simone too rich, too complex, and too unnerving to work as the viewer-friendly summer comedy it’s being marketed as. From a purely commercial standpoint, that’s not the wisest of moves, however one may view it from an artistic standpoint.
Unfortunately, writer-director Andrew Niccol takes everything altogether too far in the realm of calculated quirkiness. This rarely seems genuine, doesn’t enrich the depth of the film’s thematic qualities, and is apt to make the film more off-putting to a mass audience.
Later plot convolutions — Viktor being charged with Simone’s “murder” — work even less well and very nearly derail the film. Fortunately, the film rights itself at the very end to become the living embodiment of John Ford’s concept of opting for the legend when the facts contradict it. Pacino is brilliant in the lead role and obviously enjoying one of his all too rare opportunities to play comedy. He’s matched every step of the way by the remarkable Catherine Keener, but perhaps the real surprise of the film is the completely unheralded presence of Winona Ryder playing against type as the Hollywood prima donna from hell. Her class A bitchiness alone is worth the price of admission to this complex, funny, but deeply flawed movie.