A star is programmed

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

If computers play an ever-greater part in filmmaking, then actors made of bits and bytes could be the Oscar winners of tomorrow.

That's the premise of "Simone," starring Al Pacino as a has-been director who needs a new angle to restart his career. Seizing on a cybernetics program concocted by a dying scientist, he creates a virtual star, who is as stunning as she is artificial, and passes her off as real. She captivates the public, makes his new picture a smash, and becomes the world's most sought-after star.

So far so good. But how long can our hero keep his synthespian's identity – or lack thereof – a secret? What can he do about the fans hungry for gossip, the rapacious journalists panting for photos, the studio execs dying to meet the star who's making them rich?

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And then there's the question of his own integrity. Is he satisfying legitimate appetites of a star-struck society, or engineering a fraud for nobody's gain but his own? Should he let his long-suffering ex-wife in on the scam, especially since she heads the studio that produces his pictures? What would his daughter think?

"Simone" has the makings of a savvy satire on today's mania for celebrities who are half artificial from the get-go, wrapping skin-deep acting abilities in bodies tweaked by couturiers, makeup wizards, and armies of plastic surgeons. (Don't they know it shows?)

Sadly, writer-director Andrew Niccol doesn't bring his ideas to life, despite the promise he showed in "Gattaca" and "The Truman Show." "Simone" moves at a lumbering pace, peppered with ungainly gags and dramatic moments with little emotional power. The ironic commentary on show-biz superficiality is sabotaged by Niccol's failure to make his own story seem real. The deliberately bogus world of "The Truman Show" looks like cinema-vérité compared to the ersatz Hollywood he's cooked up here.

Pacino aims for a mix of charm, vulnerability, and pathos, which pretty much cancel one another out. Catherine Keener and Evan Rachel Wood do their best with one-dimensional roles. Simone is played by Canadian actress Rachel Roberts, in her movie debut, though her image has been digitally tweaked. I only wish the film she's in had more wit and insight to offer.

• Rated PG-13; contains mild violence, sexuality.

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