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 a weekend double feature of Simone and Serving Sara, two end-of-season, everything-must-go releases that at first glance seem united only by their use of women’s names in the titles. Simone is high-concept, 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; Serving Sara is junk-concept, about slapping Elizabeth Hurley and Matthew Perry together and praying against all hope that comic chemistry will ignite. One is a cautionary tale of a sort, about Hollywood’s elevation of the easily synthetic at the expense of the challengingly authentic; the other is synthetic, a cautionary tale about the limits of celebrity as an acting style. Here we are in August, virtually tired.
Not that Al Pacino, the flesh-and-blood star of Simone, is tired for a moment. 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), 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.
Then again, who needs software when there’s Elizabeth Hurley, with puffed and glossed lips and boobs, already motorized? In Serving Sara, the inexplicable British import plays the title character, whose rich, two-timing Texas cattle-ranching husband (Bruce Campbell) is trying to divorce her — and to cheat the apparently classy, faithful, beautiful gal out of the settlement she deserves. Matthew Perry is Joe, a process server who falls for Sara in the course of trying to deliver her walking papers. The movie itself is a cattle ranch full of joke droppings and mooing shtick not worth stepping in. (Cedric the Entertainer does one brand of antic apoplexy as Joe’s boss, while The Sopranos’ Vincent Pastore does more as Joe’s competitive colleague.) And the few jaunty, Friends-inflected lines Perry does get off are lost among the cow pies.
If Simone represents a flat-screen notion of Hollywood desirability, Hurley is the 3-D version. And while both performers may represent the default program for female movie-star attributes in the waning days of summer, the biggest joke on virtual-reality proponents and Hollywood-reality gurus may be this: Nia Vardalos, the imperfect-looking, frizzy-haired star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is confounding all blueprints for a Simone-ized world of entertainment with her box office success. The force of such an irreproducibly real performance is enough to crash a spreadsheet program. Simone: B- Serving Sara: D+