There are two basic ways to use comedy in films: either play up the
gag, or use it as a backdrop to punctuate a more serious underlying
story. Movies like "The Naked Gun", "Austin Powers" and the "Pink Panther"
are classics in the "gag" genre because they never attempt to approach
any serious human issue, even though the vulnerabilities of the main
characters are sympathetic, and we love the heroes despite themselves. On
the other hand, if you're going to introduce even the faintest shadow
of seriousness, then you cross that grey line where some modicum of
intellect is required to keep the audience within the circle of believable
possibilities. Failing that, even the gag itself can't save the film.
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The problem with "Simone", the latest film from writer, producer and
director, Andrew Niccol, is that the movie doesn't know which it wants to
be, bringing down the whole movie a notch or two.
Al Pacino plays Viktor Taransky, a down and out Academy Award-nominated
director who just lost his last shot at a comeback - and his job - due
to one too many "creative differences" with ego-centric actors. When
a computer genius dies and bequeaths to Viktor a computer program that
perfectly simulates a human, Viktor uses it to create his own actress,
named Simone. She instantly becomes a hit, and Viktor is back in the movie
business again, but not because of his filmmaking, because of his new
cyber star that everyone else in the world thinks is a real person. At
last, he has a taste of the success he always craved and the world's
most beloved star under his thumb, but he keeps the secret of her real
identity to himself for fear of losing the limelight. By the time he
realizes that his life is getting worse, he tries in vain to dispense
of the synthetic actress, but to no avail. Her celebrity status is too
strong for the public to think anything badly of her. Even his attempts to
"kill" her are unsuccessful.
Is it a satire on the superficiality of Hollywood and the great lie
perpetuated by celebrity culture? Or, does it just use that as a
backdrop to support its more serious side of Viktor's psychological
deterioration? The movie seems to swagger between the two, but ultimately
abandons the drama for the gag. Oops.
That's not to say this is a bad film - the satirical cuts at Hollywood
and celebrity culture are cute, and the movie is lots of fun to watch
for the great one-liners. But, make no mistake; this is not to be
compared with the all-time winner for this category: Robert Altman's
"The Player," or even Barry Sonnenfeld's "Get Shorty." The cuts at
Hollywood are fun because, well, we like that. It's a safe, sure fire
hit with audiences. But the humor isn't that biting and certainly not
original. Poignant, yes, but we've seen it before.
The bigger problem with "Simone" is that the movie also wants to have
the human drama: the broken relationship, getting back with the ex-wife,
the too-bright-for-her-own-good daughter, and many other clichés. Again,
nothing wrong with that! But the movie doesn't do anything with these
people. They're two-dimensional, and Viktor's need for them is not
supported by the script or acting. He begins to drink more heavily,
but the thread of his being an alcoholic is completely dropped. There
is no confrontation at all about his issues, either alone with his own
thoughts, or between him and someone else. If you're going to make such
plot points appear important, do something with them! Don't just present
them and leave them hanging. It neither adds to the gag, nor contributes
to the story line.
In short, too many important aspects of basic story-telling are hand-waved
away, putting the film more in the category of exceptionally light comedy
at its own expense. Fun, yes, but it could have been better. Niccol,
who also did Gattaca and The Truman Show, has shown us that he can
address very human and realistic issues without appearing too serious
or heavy-handed, nor has he diluted his comedic form. So, in a sense,
"Simone" is a step down for the filmmaker, because he relied too heavily
on the gag of the cyber actress, which, alone, doesn't carry the film. I
hope this doesn't mean that Niccol himself may also be getting lost in
that Hollywood spectre and become his own Viktor Taransky.
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