by Ed Symkus

Most people standing in line to buy a movie ticket have at least a semblance of an idea as to what they're going to get for their money. But not with this one. Even when it's over, there will be viewers scratching their heads, wondering if they've just seen a comedy, a drama, a science fiction film or a satiric skewering of everything related to movies.

Actually, Simone is all of the above wrapped into one nice, neat, weird little package. Springing from the mind of New Zealander Andrew Niccol, who wrote The Truman Show and wrote and directed Gattaca, it's another bizarre take on someone unable to deal with fitting in, someone uncomfortable with the world around him. And although there are many dramatic moments, there's no doubt this is a black comedy.

Because the male lead in the film had to run a long stretch from being weak and frightened to someone who takes control to eventually being overcome by his own ambitions (that's a lot of ground to cover), Niccol turned early on to Al Pacino. It was the right choice.

At the beginning, his character, the washed-up director Viktor Taransky, is seen anxiously pulling all the red pieces from a large bowl filled with multi-colored candy, deathly afraid of offending his "star" actress (nastily portrayed in cameo by Winona Ryder), who is very able at bossing around her superiors, especially this kowtowing director.

And before long, poor Viktor is canned from the job by his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), who now runs the studio. Ah, but good things are waiting around the corner for Viktor, a man who's been longing for the glory days of Hollywood that came before him, and who's now at the end of his rope. He's given a gift, a computer code, something called "Simulation One," or, if you cram the two words together and leave out a few letters in the middle, Simone.

Viktor, an artist at heart, a man who doesn't have time to deal with demanding actors or actresses who think they rule the roost on a set, has been given a way to make a movie without, at least in this case, a real actress in the lead. Through an advanced computer program, as well as his own physical actions and distorted voice, he can, without anyone else knowing it, put the perfect woman (no demands, no blemishes, great body, wonderful smile, a master thespian) in his next film right alongside the real actors, and even they don't know it.

It's too bad that the film he makes is a pretentious piece of crap. But that doesn't really matter. Simone is amazing in the part. "A dazzling new ingenue has come from nowhere," screams the headline out of Hollywood. Viktor is once again on top of his game with his new "discovery."

Of course, everyone wants to meet this dazzling new actress, from the curious press to the star-struck public. But, umm, she doesn't exist. She was created as a sort of lesson from Viktor that no actor is bigger than his or her director. The irony is that he can't tell anyone, and that he must somehow keep her under wraps, no matter how popular she gets. Well, maybe he can talk after the next film, but not right now.

The comedy is everywhere, and it's too bad Pacino hasn't done more of this kind of thing (which Robert De Niro has really capitalized on in recent years). This is his best role of the sort since he went outrageously over the top as Big Boy Caprice a decade ago in Dick Tracy. But here it's more mannered, even when he pulls off a great comic motif that starts with him frantically running away from a small press conference, arms waving and later running away from a variety of people.

Even as he's up there being funny, whether it's from facial expressions or body movements or the fact that at one point he's all dolled up in bright red lipstick, he's also convincingly playing a man who's falling apart, who has done something great but has been emotionally overwhelmed by his creation. Within all of his comic anger and frustrated ruthlessness, there's a very sympathetic character.

And within the film, there are moments of pure creepiness, like when Viktor sits in a vast empty warehouse, staring at and "talking" with, the disembodied image of Simone on a screen, although he does all the talking for both of them. And there's a big stab at the power of television, much like Niccol did in The Truman Show. Eventually, the film reaches incredible heights of absurdity, when Viktor's lofty, but selfish, goals of doing this in the name of art backfire. It's all capped off with a cool, slap-in-the-face ending. But it's a slap that refreshes.

Our interview with the writer and director of Simone, Andrew Niccol, is on page 36.

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