Virtual reality on a computer screen and Hollywood reality on a movie screen are not such different consumer experiences. Both tantalize with scenarios forever out of reach, no matter how intimate our conversation in an Internet chat room or how much we’re sure we’ve met club bouncers who look just like the mook hero of ”XXX.” Both are driven by a potent amalgam of art and commerce. And both have a profound power to influence our behavior in actual non-virtual reality — although not always in ways the producers of these linked entertainments may have had in mind this summer.
You don’t have to be Susan Sontag to come up with such thoughts after taking in Simone, a high-concept film about a Hollywood director beaten down by the demands of obnoxious talent and suits, who creates a superstar actress on his computer and fools the world into falling in love with her. It’s a cautionary tale of a sort, about Hollywood’s elevation of the easily synthetic at the expense of the challengingly authentic.
As Viktor Taransky, a director at the end of his options, plagued by the niggling and haggling of a hundred industry scourges, including his studio boss and ex-wife (Catherine Keener, the embodiment of a power-suit gal) and a balky diva starlet (Winona Ryder, sulking to perfection in a well-chosen cameo), Al Pacino is alive with furies and fears. He’s the very opposite of a machine-made man. Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, ”Simone” reflects the same sophisticated fascination with manipulated life that the filmmaker brought to ”Gattaca” and his script for ”The Truman Show,” and Niccol smartly contrasts the bland, blond beauty of computer-colored Simone (the name is a contraction of a computer program called Simulation One) with the brunet vividness of Keener. Indeed, the digitized dream girl (played by Canadian model Rachel Roberts) is way duller than every other indie-sharp player in the cast (including Elias Koteas, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jay Mohr, Jason Schwartzman, and Evan Rachel Wood as Viktor’s self-possessed teenage daughter). The scenery and props of backlot life shimmer in this handsome production. Every player is dressed to kill softly, in shades of expensive gray and black, just so, against a backdrop of afternoon Los Angeles sun.
But there’s something uneasy about the movie’s obsession with the virtual. Taransky and Niccol are more turned on envisioning a future of machine-made stars than they cop to; pixels inspire their best set pieces, including an open-air concert in which a hologram Simone sings ”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” The computer-generated superstar is a synthesis all right, a catalog of every prevailing physical characteristic and feminine attribute already replicated for real in every magazine and TV style show selling fantasy today: puffed, glossed lips and boobs, generic starlet voice, the whole brainless package rubbed smooth. The movie pretends to warn against such shallowness — but flaunts its arousal at how exciting such a controllable world is for those with access to the software.