*** (A must-see)

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol

With Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Evan Rachel Wood, Jay Mohr, Elias Koteas, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Jason Schwartzman, and Winona Ryder.

“The idea of Hollywood is the most original idea Hollywood ever had–the only one that it ever made up by itself,” asserts critic Richard Schickel in his 1993 documentary Hollywood on Hollywood. Since at least 1912, when nickelodeon patrons got a glimpse at the filmmaking process in the one-reeler A Vitagraph Romance, Hollywood has reveled in stories about itself, which range from the sweetly nostalgic (Singin’ in the Rain) to the bitterly satiric (The Player). Often the protagonist is a starstruck outsider trying to get to the top (Anchors Aweigh), though just as often he’s a Hollywood veteran down on his luck (Sunset Boulevard). Andrew Niccol’s clever satire Simone combines the two, as Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), an arty director whose career is spiraling downward, replaces a spoiled star with a computer-generated beauty synthesized from earlier movie stars. “A star is digitized,” declares the director.

Niccol seems fascinated by state-of-the-art technology and how it impacts human identity. In his first screenplay, for The Truman Show (1998), a man discovers that he’s been living his entire life in a giant television studio, every second of his day recorded by hidden video cameras and broadcast to the world. In Gattaca (1997), Niccol’s debut feature as a director, genetic science has progressed so far that detectives, employers, and even your date at a club can assay your DNA, resulting in a Darwinian caste system of “valids” and “invalids.” When I saw Simone, some of my colleagues assured me that Simone–listed in the credits as “Herself”–was a digital creation, though as it turns out, one of her components is Canadian model Rachel Roberts. Our confusion cuts to the heart of Niccol’s film: since movie stars are essentially the product of our fantasies, why can’t a digital one be just as valid as a human?

Taransky still recalls the Hollywood dream factory: gilt-framed portraits of classic leading ladies decorate the stucco walls of his Hollywood office. He yearns for the days of the studio system, when stars were created from nobodies and enslaved by long-term contracts. His latest film, Sunrise, Sunset, is imperiled by its star, Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder), a childless woman who demands first-class airfare for the nanny in her entourage. In the old days studio executives could have ordered Anders to change her name; now she expects the director to sort through her bowl of candies on the set and remove the cherry-flavored ones, and his highly symbolic scene of a thousand geese is beyond her. Upset that her costar’s Airstream trailer is a few inches farther off the ground than hers, she quits the film, leaving Taransky at the mercy of his boss at Amalgamated Film Studio–who’s also his ex-wife (Catherine Keener).

Taransky is saved by Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas), a one-eyed computer programmer who eight years earlier was booed off the stage at a conference on the future of film during his talk on virtual actors, “Who Needs Humans?” Terminally ill, Aleno bequeaths Taransky the hard drive containing his innovative Simulation One program, and the director uses it to synthesize an alluring blond from the characteristics of various screen stars, including Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, and Ernest Borgnine. With Simone in the lead role, Sunrise, Sunset becomes a monster hit, and Taransky finds himself in the position of having to protect her identity–or lack thereof–from a rabid international fan base.

Fabricating the perfect woman is an idea as old as the myth of Pygmalion. In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) an inventor creates a robotic woman who serves as a provocateur for rebellious workers and a temptress for the cafe elite. In Michael Crichton’s Looker (1981) computer-generated women pitch subliminal messages in TV commercials for products and politicians. Simone is truly flawless, a multitalented performer whose appeal is universal: on her “Splendid Isolation” tour, beamed around the world by satellite, she serenades throngs of fans with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” her image projected onto the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal. Not even a dogged reporter from Echo magazine, a salivating fan himself, can uncover the ploy. Like Allegra Coleman, the pseudostarlet labeled “Hollywood’s Next Dream Girl” on a 1999 Esquire cover parodying celebrity journalism, Simone succeeds not because of her talent or Taransky’s script but because of her audience’s irresistible will to believe in her.

“Movies about the movies cannot be taken as documentaries,” write Rudy Behlmer and Tony Thomas in Hollywood’s Hollywood, yet there must be something to the fact that so many films about Hollywood are steeped in self-loathing. Richard Schickel, writing for Life in 1966, again hit the nail on the head when he pointed to “a kind of anti-myth” in such films: “Hollywood has come to take a perverse pride in its rottenness.” Simone joins numerous other movies in satirizing the dream factory, but it dares not tell us suckers how we fit into the big picture.