A washed-up film director is given a hard disk that holds a computer-generated movie star with hundreds of programmable permutations. Although Simone (short for Simulation One) brings him great success, he'll soon learn that the star he has created also has the power to destroy him.
Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino) is having a very, very bad day. His harpie ex-wife Elaine (Catherine Keener), who happens to be the head of Amalgamated Film Studios, cancels his contract. The lead actress in his new film (Winona Ryder), also a harpie, walks off the set. The opening doesn't bode well for anyone with feminist sensibilities, filled as it is with the farcical shrieking of these two women; the film seems to say that in order to make the ingénue look enticing, all other women must be utterly appalling. Fortunately, the device is used only briefly to set up Simone's entrance, in the form of a hard disk delivered to Taransky by a dying one-eyed man. Simone, a computer construct that is ''art and science, the perfect marriage,'' is destined, the man says, for the big screen--and he believes Taransky is the director to put her there. Considering his leading actress has just bolted, the seed couldn't have been planted at a better time, and nine months later, Taransky gives birth--Frankenstein-like (he's not called Viktor for nothing)--to Simone in her first feature film. Of course, Taransky has also planned to take his sweet revenge on the studio system and the Hollywood celebrity hounds by eventually revealing his creation, but when she becomes an overnight sensation, his over-reaching ego gets the better of him, and he can't bear to reveal the truth and sacrifice his own newfound fame. His struggle to conceal Simone's identity, and the length to which her admiring public and the paparazzi will go to discover it, becomes an ever-escalating joke, building to a hilarious pitch and an unexpected punch line as the creation's success threatens to destroy the creator.
Throughout the film, and especially in the opening scenes, the cast has a tendency to play the farce all the way up and over the top--and to a certain extent, it works. The overblown acting style works with the themes of the film and eventually becomes the reason the dialogue plays so well. Keener's (Full Frontal) unique brand of awkward, gawky comedy stands her in good stead here, although she's annoyingly shrill in the role early on. Ryder's (Mr. Deeds) catty movie star (''a supermodel with a SAG card'') and Pacino's (Insomnia) Taransky indulge in a bit of the stilted, clunky dialogue we've come to expect from Ryder, but Pacino more than makes up for that early scene during the rest of the movie. He's quite possibly the only actor who could deliver such lines as ''A star is digitized,'' or ''If a performance is real, what does it matter if the actor is fake?'' in any kind of meaningful way. He delivers his dialogues with Simone--which are really monologues because he speaks for her and for himself, too--with intelligence and just the slightest hint of wry humor. He's the only cast member who doesn't entirely give in to the impulse to ham it up; he's funny without becoming a joke himself. Pruitt Taylor Vince, on the other hand, steals just about every scene he's in as tabloid journalist Max Sayer, mainly because his character's never called on to be anything but a joke.
The unfortunate flip side of any farce is that the dramatic scenes are sometimes overplayed--and that's what happens here. It's difficult for the audience to follow the sometimes too-swift transitions between farce and sincerity, and it's too easy for the actors to drift into melodrama, which they occasionally do. When it's being funny, Simone is great, but its serious moments come off as a little shallow. Then again, considering this is a movie about just how shallow people can be, maybe that proves director/screenwriter Andrew Niccol (Gattaca). Simone recognizes that actresses, directors, producers, studio executives and, yes, even the press all take the ideal of celebrity way too seriously, placing too much value on image and not enough on substance. Scene after scene of outrageous public reaction to Simone illustrates Hollywood's insatiable desire for the famous; it's as if Marilyn Monroe had returned from the dead with all her charisma intact--so much so that she doesn't even have to be physically present to charm the masses. Simone has her own cologne. She becomes a pop star, singing (what else?) ''You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman'' to crowds of thousands. A mad rush at a cocktail party sends a girl who looks like Simone hurtling into a pool; another girl wants to sleep with Taransky so she can feel close to the actress. As the movie sends up this lust for secondhand stardom, it becomes clear that Simone, a computer-generated image, is more authentic than the people watching her. ''Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it,'' Taransky says. Beyond that, Simone's sly ending implies, we don't even want to.
Despite its uncomfortably ear-piecing opening scenes, Simone is a sharp and hilarious look at the amazing egos of Hollywood.