Dir: Andrew Niccol. US. 2002. 124mins

A third slice of near-futuristic fantasy from Andrew Niccol, the creator of The Truman Show and Gattaca, Simone is a silly souffle of a movie that has some good ingredients but turns out overcooked and stodgy. The film's awkward tone - not to mention its extreme length - will make audiences wriggle uncomfortably in their seats, anxious for the end credits and irritated that a film which looks like a sharp satire should play out like a clumsy farce. That said, this fable of a virtual actress who becomes a superstar, has some intriguing marketing hooks which will be used to moderately successful effect in the US, when the film opens this week, by New Line Cinema and internationally by its independent partners.

The first of these is the red-hot cast led by Al Pacino and featuring a choice cameo by cause celebre du jour Winona Ryder. Second is the timely subject of celebrity culture incorporating tabloid stalkers, movie star tantrums and public manipulation. And last but not least the virtual star herself, Simone. Is she real or is she a creation of special effects wizards for the film within a film' That question is one that could win this film more public want-to-see than it deserves.

Central to the story is washed-up movie director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), fired from his latest feature by his ex-wife and movie studio CEO Elaine Christian (Keener) after diva star Ryder walks off the set. But Taransky finds renewed hope when he is bequeathed some dazzling software by dying computer genius Hank Aleno (Koteas) which he uses to creates a convincing and alluring virtual actress modelled on the features of Bacall, Hepburn, Monroe and others. Inserting her in the film, he finds the success he longs for and a possible reunion with Elaine.

But when Simone becomes a worldwide phenomenon, Taransky finds that he can't stop the momentum and has to maintain the pretence that she is real. Along the way we meet his feisty daughter (Wood) who longs for her parents to get back together again, two hapless tabloid hacks (Vince and Schwartzman) desperate to track Simone down and another difficult actor who becomes Simone's co-star (Mohr).

Niccol and his cinematographer, the veteran Ed Lachman (Erin Brockovich), craft a golden look for their movie about Hollywood in a dubious attempt to evoke the golden age of the 1930s. Much of the action takes place in beautiful art deco buildings in LA, while Paramount Pictures' timeless main gates double as the gates for the fictitious movie studio Amalgamated Film Studios.

But through approaching the movie in this way, the subject of virtual stars and celebrity loses much of its contemporary sting. Devoid of any real connection to today's pop culture, Simone lacks any of the bite of Sunset Boulevard, The Bad And The Beautiful or The Player - films which really took on the cruelty of Hollywood from within. It is as if Niccol chickened out, opting for benign caricatures instead of any scathing approximation of today's cutthroat star-makers.

Watch out for the end credits as "Simone" thanks her inspirations - among them the aforementioned screen legends and others like Grace Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Jayne Mansfield. But hold it. There is one unknown name at the end of the list in Rachel Roberts. Mmm' who could this mysterious Ms Roberts be'

Prod cos: Niccol Films, New Line Cinema
US dist:
New Line
Int'l sales:
New Line International
Exec prods: Bradley Camp, Lynn Harris, Michael De Luca
Prod/scr: Andrew Niccol
Edward Lachman
Prod des:
Jan Roelfs
Paul Rubell
Carter Burwell
Main cast: Al Pacino, Catherine Keener, Evan Rachel Wood, Jay Mohr, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Elias Koteas, Jason Schwartzman, Stanley Anderson, Winona Ryder