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Screen Dream

In Simone, writer-director Andrew Niccol takes a satirical stab at Hollywood's cult of personality; Robin Williams's villain in One Hour Photo feels underdeveloped.

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Faking it:Movie director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) and his computer-generated starlet Simone.  

Simone is a cautionary hollywood satire about the first computer-generated movie star. A composite of vocal intonations and body parts from a gallery of famous leading ladies as well as a blend of apparently every supermodel on the planet, the alluring "synthespian" Simone is a glossy, soulless pastiche. This explains why the public isn't suspicious of her. After all, what's to distinguish her from all the glossy, soulless real actors out there? Writer-director Andrew Niccol throws around a lot of intriguing ideas in this film, and even though his ambitions are more expansive than his talent, he's managed to come up with something that credibly resembles the shape of things to come, Hollywood-style. Fortunately, Simone has as its real-life star one of the most flesh-and-blood of all actors, Al Pacino, who plays Viktor Taransky, the movie director who unleashes Simone on a world that has no inkling she's not real.

Taransky is a legendary, Oscar-nominated auteur on the skids. When his female star (Winona Ryder, in a cameo) walks off his new film in mid-production, he's rescued by a dying computer geek (Elias Koteas) who bequeaths him the software to create the 3-D Simone. Recast in the lead, she becomes Hollywood's hottest star; she even introduces her own line of perfume, which, in the movie's terms, is an achievement on par with her winning an Oscar. (That sounds about right.) The fact that no one has actually seen Simone -- she never appears in public or even on the set with the other actors -- is explained by her Garbo-esque reclusiveness. As her fame blooms, Viktor has to come up with ever-more-byzantine ruses to keep the public, and the snooping press, at bay. Even when he attempts to spill the beans and clear up his frantic life, no one wants to believe him. And even if people did believe him, would they care? Stardom is stardom; whether it has a heartbeat is secondary.

On one level, Simone rebukes an industry ruled by the insane demands of movie stars. Why should directors have to endure the tantrums of prima donnas when they can be replaced by holograms? Simone is also a not-so-thinly-veiled attack on movie audiences (and movie journalists) for their goggle-eyed gullibility. But Niccol isn't a very good scourge, perhaps because he's more intrigued than mortified by all the computerization he's spewing forth.

He's been down this road before, in The Truman Show, which he wrote, and in his writing-directing debut, Gattaca, which was about a futuristic society of genetically "perfect" people. Niccol's sympathy for the unabashedly human types in these movies never quite rings true, because he's captivated by the possibilities of the real in the synthetic. The computer-generated Simone may be soulless, but that's part of her pizzazz (as it is with so many supermodels). Compared with her, the other characters in the movie, with the vast exception of Viktor, are paper-thin.

Niccol tries to turn the movie into a comedic saga of redemption: Viktor comes back from the brink to reclaim not only his career but also his adoring teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), who runs the studio he works for. This sunniness isn't very convincing. Viktor has so much messy energy that conventional happiness doesn't sit too well with him. He needs craziness in order to be sane. I suppose Pacino is miscast as a famous movie director -- he doesn't look like giving orders is an integral part of his psyche -- but that doesn't really matter here. What matters is the yin-yang that Niccol sets up between the hypercool Simone and this dark dervish of worry. As an exemplar of actors with a pulse, Pacino is peerless.

One Hour Photo is an antiseptic movie about an antiseptic man. Sy Parrish, played by Robin Williams, has been working the photo counter at the local SavMart for eleven years. His beatific smiles are the emblem of blank gentility. Of course, since this is the New Robin Williams, we can expect that Sy is a psychopath, and sure enough, it turns out he's long been fixated on a picture-perfect suburban mom (Connie Nielsen) and her husband and young son; the walls of his apartment are papered with photos of them. When it becomes clear that this family is not as idyllic as his fantasies would suggest, Sy goes into a hypercontrolled rage.

Mark Romanek, who wrote and directed, is something of a control freak himself. Every square inch of the movie is calibrated to the nth degree, and so is Williams's performance. Williams is a true conundrum: After a varied career in which he played, to great effect, complicated characters whose emotions were all over the place, he settled into a dull groove of family-style entertainments, and now, to compound the error, he's turned into a serial bogeyman. His tight, ticky performance in One Hour Photo is right in line with his killer in Insomnia; they both scream career makeover. But Williams doesn't need to make himself over. He needs to get back to what he once did so startlingly well. In such movies as The World According to Garp, Dead Poets Society, The Best of Times, Moscow on the Hudson, and The Birdcage, he had a rapturous, beseeching quality; he was an ordinary man exalted by the intoxications of the everyday. Williams once knew how to be very still and yet allow us to see the plangent human being underneath. In One Hour Photo, Sy's scary ordinariness is a species of acting stunt. There's no there there.

Michel Bouquet's performance makes Anne Fontaine's How I Killed My Father required viewing. Playing an estranged father who comes back into his unhappy son's life, Bouquet gives us a man of great politesse who nevertheless lacks something essentially human in his makeup. It's a scary rendition of an old charmer, and there seems to be a whole lifetime of understanding behind it. . . . The Last Kiss, an Italian film directed by Gabriele Muccino, proceeds from the incontrovertible assumption that being in love makes you as crazy as being out of love. It's a frisky, funny roundelay starring Stefania Sandrelli, and it features enough shouting and arm-waving to power a windmill.

Simone
Directed by Andrew Niccol; starring Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Evan Rachel Wood.
One Hour Photo
Directed by Mark Romanek; starring Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen.


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