S1m0ne (2002)

Hollywood writer-director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) has had it with actors. The star of his almost-finished picture just walked off the set because one of her many insane diva demands has not been met. The studio shut the film down because it is afraid of legal repercussions, and Taransky cannot find another actress willing to replace the star. In walks a dying computer programmer who claims to have invented the perfect substitute: a virtual thespian who can mimic the features, voices and performance tricks of famous actresses of the past.

Taransky doesn’t believe him at first, but when the program is delivered to him upon his inventor’s death, he tries it out, having nothing to lose. A few months later, his film is released. Recut and anchored by the magnetic performance of newcomer “Simone”, it becomes a giant hit, resurrecting Taransky’s career and launching Simone’s sky-high. The press and the public become obsessed with the new star and it becomes more and more difficult for Taransky to keep up the charade, and to reconcile his own pathological need for attention with the fact that he is being overshadowed by his own creation.

Andrew Niccol’s follow-up script to The Truman Show (1998), unlike any of his other films, is pretty much a pure comedy, taking its cues more from Mrs Doubtfire (1993) and The Associate (1996) than Niccol’s previous (and future) work. There’s a subplot involving Taransky’s ex-wife and daughter that might have been intended to add some sentimental heart to the film. It doesn’t work – Pacino’s Taransky just isn’t particularly worthy of empathy -, but it doesn’t have to. S1m0ne is and works as a satire of Hollywood, of the press, of the common public’s celebrity worship, and, subversively, of actual worship.

The film is not at all realistic, nor tightly plotted within the universe it establishes for itself. There are contrivances and plot holes galore, most of the characters behave like idiots, the ending is a giant deus ex machina, and technology just doesn’t work like that. A program like the one Taransky has, which can be operated by just one man with the simplicity depicted in the movie, doesn’t exist in 2012, certainly didn’t exist in 2002, and will probably not be invented in the near future. I don’t know if this factoid is true, but if so, it is telling: IMDB claims that Niccol considered having Simone be computer-animated, but had to go with an actual actress when the Screen Actors Guild threatened them, fearing that the movie might cause a dangerous precedent. It’s an over-reaction that isn’t in the movie, but could have been. Over-reactions are the film’s entire point.

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Its satire is at its sharpest when it covers the public’s adoration with Simone. She is literally a manufactured being, and it should be obvious that she is; there are quite a few obvious signs especially early on. Simone doesn’t look real in the movie scenes we see with her, for instance. But it’s her very otherworldliness that appeals to people; the fakery inherent in every Hollywood production is made manifest in the actress. But people can’t quite verbalise it, so they let themselves get infected by the enthusiasm they see around them.

And it’s not just common people, but also her supposed peers. The movies Taransky has her star in, it is implied, aren’t even all that good, or at least shouldn’t have mass appeal. Her fans don’t care. The vaunted Academy Awards give Simone not one, but two Oscars for her two only performances (and the other nominees are women who acted “alongside” her; their performances, no matter how worthy, are illuminated by her “presence”). In a later scene, Taransky deliberately tries to sabotage Simone’s career by having her behave badly on camera and by having her star in and “direct” an intentionally terrible vanity project. The public eats it up and, if anything, loves Simone even more. Simone proves indestructible, and the movie’s “happy ending” consists of Taransky accepting the fact that the ruse must continue.

What the film seems to be saying, both in a very on-the-nose fashion and occasionally in a rather roundabout way, is that sometimes people want to be lied to, want to believe the illusion. Hollywood is already much more about perception than it is about truth, not just on camera but also behind the scenes. In that sense, SAG’s fears were accurate: Simone really is the next logical step, except that she’s not an advanced puppet with a personality of her own, or an imitation of any one actor, but an amalgamation of the most attractive features of everybody. The creator of the Frankenstein monster, incidentally, was named Victor Frankenstein.

Simone is successful not despite, but because she does not exist. The programmer who originally designed her called her a “vactor”: it’s supposedly a portmanteau of “virtual actor”, but I don’t doubt Niccols primarily thought of the adjective “vacuous” when he wrote that line. Not knowing anything about her background (because she does not have one), the public can make up anything they like to project onto Simone. She doesn’t have any of the pesky baggage real life brings with it, even with all of the charlatanery Taransky needs to engage in to keep up the illusion. Under the right circumstances, fakery can be so much more appealing than authenticity. It’s no coincidence that the film ends with Simone announcing a political career for herself.

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