Thursday, February 13, 2020

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: S1M0NE

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo that can't wait to meet a real fake.

Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Our All Pacino series continues this week with S1m0ne, the 2002 sci-fi film written and directed by Andrew Niccol (whose various writing/directing credits include The Truman Show, Gattaca, Lord of War, In Time, and woah, The Terminal?). When a falling out with high-maintenance lead actress Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder) forces artsy auteur Viktor Taransky (Pacino) to shelve his latest project, a chance meeting with terminally-ill computer genius Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas) presents the director with a new option: A digital actress called Simone (Rachel Roberts). Crafting her performance with the click of a mouse, Taransky turns Simone into an international superstar, one whose need for total isolation befuddles the media and allows Taransky the complete artistic control he always wanted. But as Simone’s career explodes, Taransky’s ex-wife/producer (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) begin to suspect that she might be too good to be true.

I had a good time with the goofy S1m0ne. It’s easy to dismiss Niccol as “Charlie Kaufman for grandmas,” a filmmaker trying to force his off-beat sensibilities on the mainstream with mixed results. And while the “Computers are magic/Are computers people?” messaging feels quaint in 2020, S1m0ne’s excellent cast helped me buy into the absurdity. Pacino looks lost and hung-over the entire movie, which feels intentional and works in our favor on a number of levels. Keener is forced to play the Obtuse Authority Figure AND the Ex-Wife, but she’s charming as both. And hey, look, it’s Jay Mohr! They’re not necessarily standout performances (save for Ryder, who steals the movie in two scenes), and the ideas in S1m0ne feel sanitized to the point where nothing makes any sense (I imagine there’s a weirder version of the script out there in which Pacino spends more time at an oversized computer desk), but the final product is still endearing enough to be interesting. It’s a movie full of silly little Reserved Seating goodies that I’m excited to talk about.

Adam, what did you think of Simone, and what candy would be on your celebrity rider?
Adam: I want Starburst but throw out all of the orange and yellows. Oh, S1m0ne. I did not have a good time with S1m0ne. For me, this ranks near the bottom of the Pacino pile from what we’ve covered thus far. The movie mostly wants to be a farce and/or satire (genres I’ll admit normally leave me cold) and there’s some fun in seeing Al Pacino running around a backlot guarding a door from studio executives. It’s silly and enjoyable at times. My main gripe with Simone is a little complicated, but I’ll try my best to explain. It basically comes down to that writer-producer-director Andrew Niccol is so in the S1m0ne zone (textually and meta-textually) that I felt trapped by this movie because I didn’t share his Zodiac-level obsession (did you know in real life he later married the actress [Rachel Roberts] who plays Simone???). The movie felt like it would never end and I didn’t figure out for myself why I should care. What is it about Simone that people are responding to? Is it because she’s a cocktail of their favorite stars and they’re responding subconsciously? Speaking of which, I thought it was pretty funny the way in which Simone was run by Pacino because Niccol decided “It’s a magic keyboard that anyone can operate and anything can happen.”

Rob: I can definitely see your point, and that’s what I meant when I said that there are gaps in the world-building that leave us scratching our heads about so many things that are going on. Niccol’s inability to break from his perspective (Essentially that art is compromised by capitalism and celebrity) totally limits his ability to help us understand why and how Simone captures the public’s imagination. To him, it’s all a foreign concept that he sees fit to condescend to rather than analyze. The audience isn’t even a factor in his creation; it’s about his personal expression. That’s really clear when Simone becomes a pop star and Pacino is running around arranging for smoke machines to mask her appearance, and all that. If there’s no empathy for the non-Pacino characters, it’s hard to get next to Niccol’s messaging in any meaningful way.

Adam: I wonder how this played in 2002 compared to now. The star system (which this movie is thumbing its nose at) isn’t what it used to be and digital (or digitally enhanced) performances are commonplace enough now where we barely bat an eye. Hell, Pacino himself was S1m0ne’d in The Irishman to some extent. It’s sort of unsettling how different Film is in that regard in just 18 years. S1m0ne feels like a cautionary tale where no one listened. It’s an interesting movie even if I didn’t enjoy it in a traditional sense.
Rob: Yeah, it’s hard to deny that all the CGI actor/digital retouching/de-aging of our modern film landscape makes almost all of S1m0ne a moot point, and the turn the film takes in the third act (in which Pacino is convicted of Simone’s “murder”) speaks to our collective ignorance about the future of special effects. I also found it really unsettling that the film couldn’t seem to decide whether or not Simone is sentient. Did that seem weird to you? Still, I think what I’m connecting to in S1m0ne has more to do with Niccol’s ideas than his execution. For example, when Pacino realizes he’s created a monster and tries to torpedo Simone’s career by putting her in an art film called I Am Pig (in which she eats from a trough with a group of farm animals) and having her give an obnoxious interview on live TV, he’s illustrating how little a performer’s substance matters once the public has decided to latch onto them. I don’t think Niccol had the right tools to communicate the message (or he was hamstrung by a studio hoping not to let things to get too “artsy”), but I appreciate the effort.

Is this a Mark Off for you? Did you have any favorite Pacino moments?

Adam: I don’t like the movie but I admire its ambition. I’m glad I finally saw it. I vividly remember this came out the weekend before I went back to college from summer break back in 2002. My ex and I (we were long-distance when I was at school) saw everything and we were trying to decide between S1m0ne and Serving Sara. We ended up seeing nothing because she was upset I was leaving and we went to Bakers Square for pie instead. Looking back, I’m surprised S1m0ne won the boxing match of what’s still in my life in 2020. S1m0ne can’t be denied.
I can’t really think of favorite Pacino moments because he’s so busy carrying the weight of the plot that it rarely affords him the chance to spread his wings. Pacino excels in character studies and this felt more story-centric. I’d almost argue he’s miscast. Sorry to be such a bucket of cold water. Did you have any favorite Pacino moments? I think the scenes with Winona Ryder were my favorites, but that’s just because I love both of them as actors.

Rob: That audition scene reminded me of Mulholland Drive, so that probably helped. I can’t say there were any particular Al moments that really stood out (as you said, there’s not a lot of room for him to play with), but just the thought of him sitting behind that big computer makes me laugh.

Any other thoughts on S1m0ne?

Adam: Nope. Next week we’ll be back with our first baseball review of the new year: the 1994 remake of Angels in the Outfield. I can’t wait for this discussion. I have many thoughts. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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