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(2002) *** Pg-13
117 min. New Line.

When setting out to make yet another Movieland satire, it's best to have an angle and, better, some fresh ideas. Luckily, writer-director Andrew Niccol--with his cult-of-celebrity fantasia Simone--has both and Al Pacino, to boot.

No one should mistake Simone for a realistic look at Hollywood operations today, but in his twisted way, Niccol's heightened approach scarily approximates the state of the biz and cautions against the consequences of certain hot-button decisions. Taking off from the notion of digital actors, Niccol introduces the title character as the mad-scientist invention of software engineer Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas, doing amusing, Cronenbergesque shtick). Aleno plops his creation into the lap of Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), an auteur in dire career straits. With his new, malleable girl-toy, Taransky takes a ride to the top only to discover that everyone's love and respect is reserved for the non-existent starlet.

Niccol supplies the obligatory Tinseltown skewering (sample exchange: "That agoraphobia--it's like a plague." "It's out of control in Europe,") but goes further to explore the ego-trip character arc of a star-making director and people's unending capacity to believe what they want to believe. Niccol knows Hollywood is in the business of dreammaking, with reality usually an irrelevant irritant to the business of making movies and making money. One memorable early scene takes place on an empty New York backlot (almost as creepy as Vanilla Sky's ghost-town Times Square), as Taransky bemoans the loss of Old Hollywood's contract system.

Along the way, Niccol's farcical approach provides enough yuks to balance the food for thought, often simultaneously (at one point, Simone sings "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" to a sea of adoring fans). Niccol also "prints the legend" by not crediting actress Rachel Roberts for her part in bringing Simone to life, instead listing actresses "Simone wishes to thank;" in doing so, he plays off the notion that Taransky's "Pygmalion" picks and chooses elements from a history of screen actresses to fine-tune his protegé. Niccol also indulges in crafty wordplay, from Simone's name (which Taransky inverts to check her into hotels) to Aleno's (one of many cautions to those who live more inside a screen than in the real world).

Acting proves to still be relevant in Simone's world. Pacino is in fine form, delivering another nicely restrained performance with just the right mix of quiet mania and comic force. Pruitt Taylor Vince and Jason Schwartzman provide good flavor as obsessive detectives, and Jay Mohr plays a vapid leading man believably outclassed by a computer program. Catherine Keener enlivens her predictable part (as Taransky's studio exec ex) through her toe-to-toe sparring with Pacino.

Niccol takes a few notable missteps. Though the unrealistic plot points are forgivable in a purposefully fantastic farce, another draft might have taken the edge off these and a final act that belabors the point with unneccessarily time-killing scenes.

Still, Simone makes an entertaining and disturbing statement about "our ability to manufacture fraud [exceeding] our ability to detect it."

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