After watching S1m0ne, yet another fleetingly clever reconfiguration of the same ideas in every single film about the entertainment industry since Nothing Sacred, I’ve come up with a way to encourage filmmakers to stop the navel-gazing that’s precipitated more unwatchable movies than Sylvester Stallone and Pokémon combined. In England, they call it a year in industry. Over here, it’s an internship. Either way, it’d do wonders to help today’s artists resist the debilitating, embarrassing urge to create art about themselves.
Here’s the proposal: As soon as a writer finishes his third novel, or as soon as a filmmaker produces his third film (this is about the point where even Shakespeare began to run out of fresh ideas), said artist must spend a year exclusively doing some other job. Taxi driver, chef, mortgage broker, panhandler, carny geek—anything will do, as long as it breaks the artist out of his self-referential, self-congratulatory Hollyworld and forces him to experience a lifestyle that isn’t catered and doesn’t include back-end profits. If the job forces him to wear an embarrassing hat and/or milk animal prostates, so much the better.
If you catch S1m0ne, you’ll see what I mean. Writer-director Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show, Gattaca), who in a few months will be chasing drunken teenagers and bears out of a national park if my legislation passes, apparently thought we’d all be fascinated to learn that the entertainment industry is much more concerned with style than substance. To wit, he wrote this story of down-on-his-luck director Viktor Taransky, played by Al Pacino in full bluster.
Taransky is a two-time Oscar nominee and a lion of the New York independent film scene. He is dismayed by egotistical actors, fed up with studio bosses (including the mean one—who’s also his ex-wife—played by Catherine Keener) and embarrassed by the phoniness of his medium, which really hits him when he gets fired from a picture while standing on a Hollywood set built to look like a New York street. The irony simply must be shoveled out of the theater.
Anyway, a computer nerd (Elias Koteas) hooks Taransky up with a computer program that allows him to make a big old statement to the world: He will prove that actors are profoundly unimportant next to Art by making a star out of Simone, a blonde digital creation.
There are those who would argue that George Lucas has been working this way for four years now, and Hayden Christensen is 10 times more phony than S1m0ne could ever be. Instead, Niccol uses this setup to stage a light comedy of missing identity. Taransky creates a fabulous fiction around Simone, who gets inserted into one of Taransky’s films and eventually becomes the world’s biggest star.
Whether Simone is worth the worldwide adoration she receives is beside the point (but she’s not—she’s a vapid bore played by generically pretty Canadian model Rachel Roberts). Niccol’s concept is a moderately amusing diversion, but he unspools his film as if he’s imparting wisdom from on high. This is the navel-gazing I’m talking about—Niccol assumes the world wants to hear about his epiphany, since the only part of the world he knows about these days is crammed between Sherman Oaks and brunch.
There are plenty of cute comic touches, though. Pruitt Taylor Vince is good as a tabloid reporter who’s determined to figure out why nobody has seen Simone, and Taransky’s attempts to destroy Simone’s career after her stardom dwarfs even him are hilarious. But they’re never more than clever, and S1m0ne is never more than a treatise on things we don’t care about.
Bottom line, Niccol needs to step back from entertainment and focus his considerable gifts elsewhere. I’d suggest Yosemite. It’s not terribly far from Hollywood, but there’s lousy cell reception—and those drunken bears aren’t going to chase themselves, you know.