Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

A cotton-candy fable about being and nothingness in which a computer-generated celebrity takes on a life of her own. Director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), a true believer in the art of cinema (if not quite the artist he imagines), has been reduced to catering to the whims of pampered, tyrannical tootsies like former model Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder). When she walks off his almost finished "Sunrise Sunset," Viktor's sputtering career sustains a deathblow; the movie is scuttled and Viktor's own ex-wife, steely studio head Elaine Christian (Catherine Keener), fires him. Being accosted in the parking garage by Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas), a dying, more-than-half-mad software designer, seems the perfectly awful ending to a perfectly awful day. But Hank comes bearing Viktor's salvation, or so he says; he claims to have developed a CGI program that generates fake performers — "synthespians" — so realistic no one can tell the difference onscreen. Viktor dismisses Hank as a nut, but soon after their brief encounter a lawyer representing Aleno's estate delivers the program. And from its database of mega-star bone structure and mannerisms, Simone (uncredited flesh-and-blood model Rachel Roberts, digitally tweaked and buffed within an inch of her life)is synthesized. Viktor digitally manipulates "Sunrise Sunset," replacing Nicola with Simone, and the film is a hit. Viktor intends to reveal the deception as soon as the reviews are in, but can't resist using his malleable star's heat to finance another film. To do that, he must weave an elaborate web of lies deflecting scrutiny from the fact that he can't deliver Simone in person. And so the agoraphobic, computer-addicted starlet refuses to give face-to-face interviews or do photo shoots, and the hungry press acquiesces in return for canned images and remote access; after all, her demands aren't so much more outrageous than those of any other luminary. Other actors agree to work with Simone without actually working with her; the most tangential proximity to such celebrity is sufficient. Inevitably, like Dr. Frankenstein (tellingly, also a Victor) before him, Viktor is eclipsed by his creation — he may have created Simone, but her image is beyond his control. Simone is descended in a direct line from faux-virtual VJ Max Headroom and computer-generated newscaster Ananova by way of videogame sexpots Lara Croft and Aki Ross, and this material could have been distilled into a caustic satire of celebrity culture. But writer-director Andrew Niccol goes a sunnier route. He's clearly not interested in paranoid plausibility — as depicted, Viktor's deception couldn't stand up to even a moderately skilled researcher with an Internet connection — preferring to gently tweak tabloid journalists, superficial Hollywood-star worshippers and undemanding fans, while unrolling a dazzling tapestry of self-referential images and in-jokes. The result is gorgeous, if ultimately shallow — much like Simone herself.