A star is programmed

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?

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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