Produced and Distributed by New Line Cinema
Written and directed by Andrew Niccol

One Hour Photo
Produced by Catch 23 Entertainment, Laughlin Park Pictures, and Madjak Films
Written and directed by Mark Romanek
Distributed by 20th Century Fox

Why do we expect perfection, especially when it comes to romance, that most mercurial department of our uncertain lives?  There is a sex distinction here, of course.  Men are far more likely than women to succumb to the full force of this diseased yearning.  Despite the ceaseless warnings of poets and novelists, in the face of painful experience itself, guys go on hankering for the ideal woman, the goddess whose incandescent beauty and infinite charm will cushion life’s manifold disappointments.  (Most members of the gentler sex are far too clearheaded to harbor such ridiculous notions.  A dam-sel may love a man to distraction, but she rarely takes such leave of her senses as not to notice her lug’s shortcomings.  Her delusion is to believe she can reform him.)  Sometimes this madness leads to great things.  Think of Dante reaching for the ever-elusive Beatrice only to find himself at last in paradise, the one realm that admits perfection.  More often, however, our lunacy leads to disillusionment and, sometimes, disaster.  Although he had an inkling of the distance between the ideal and the real, Jay Gatsby chose to wed his unutterable visions to Daisy Buchanan’s all-too-perishable breath, which turned out to be fatally sour.

Two recent films, each in its own way, display this folly vividly.  It’s the centerpiece of Andrew Niccol’s S1m0ne, a film that strives to be a witty variation on the theme.  The story begins promisingly.  Al Pacino is Viktor Taransky, a modestly talented film director given to making such high-toned films as Straw Gods, Sunrise Sunset, and, my favorite, Eternity Forever.  Viktor thinks himself an uncompromising artist.  When we first meet him, however, he is reduced to sorting colored candy pieces to please Nicola, his latest leading lady, played to petulant perfection by Winona Ryder.  She does not want to see red among her sweets.  It is written into her contract—which also stipulates that seven packs of cigarettes, three open, must always be within her reach while she is in the employ of a studio.  Despite Viktor’s pains to please her, Nicola quits on him with a third of the film still unshot.  This sends Viktor into a rant about actors: “It’s not like the old days.  We were the ones who told them what to do!  We could change their names then!”  A studio executive, who also happens to be his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), gently points out that he was not in the business then and rather less gently tells him he is no longer wanted in the business now.

But all is not lost.  Viktor is approached by a crazed programmer who uses computer graphics to simulate Viktor’s ideal: a stunningly beautiful electronic actress entirely compliant with his every wish.  She even passes Viktor’s nostalgic test: He is free to name her as he sees fit.  He snips seven letters from the graphics program’s title, SimulationOne, and “Simone” is born—or, as he puts it, “A star is digitized!”  Viktor could not be more pleased as he puts this creation through her paces on a giant computer screen.  Not only can he make Simone’s image do whatever he wants, he can alter its physical specifications.  She comes with all the features of Hollywood’s feminine pantheon—the body of Sophia Loren, the grace of Grace Kelly, the smile of Audrey Hepburn, and more.  When he wants, Viktor can even deepen her Audrey dimple or tone down her Meryl Streep-ness.  Best of all, he does not have to direct her.  Instead, he sits at his console, acting her role as her image and voice perfectly mimic his every gesture and intonation.  Soon, he is having conversations with his creation.  “I’m so relaxed around you.  I’m so much more myself.”  (Not surprising sentiments from a man who has been dumped by two wives.)  At last, he has a truly selfless woman as fully devoted to him as he is.

In no time at all, Viktor finishes his film by pasting Simone’s image into the scenes he has already shot, thereby replacing and extending Nicola’s performance.  Needless to say, the movie enjoys astonishing success, and Simone’s image stirs such a vortex of frenzied fan worship that the media demand to interview her.  When Viktor announces that she does not do interviews, a tabloid suitably named the Echo suspects dirt and begins to dig.  After Simone’s second hit in Viktor’s Eternity Forever, the harried director relents and arranges for Simone to be interviewed on television by remote camera relay.  Speaking through her voice, Viktor has her explain her reclusive life.  “I think actors talk too much,” she confides.  (Who would disagree?)  Furthermore, she believes her “work should speak for itself” and considers herself an “instrument” of her favorite director, Viktor, a position with which he completely concurs—having spoken it himself through her pixilated being.  Lest we miss the point, Viktor’s 12-year-old daughter, in another scene, reads Pygmalion on her laptop.

All this should have added up to a marvelously funny satire of Hollywood’s reflexive insincerity and our image-mad popular culture, wrapped in a bemused meditation on the distance between the real and the ideal.  Sadly, Niccol does not bring it off.  This kind of material requires the agility of a Preston Sturges and the stylized performances of an Eddie Bracken or a William Demarest.  Instead, Niccol directs with lumbering pace, while Pacino tries to make his hound-dog eyes look alternately panicked and mischievous.  Willing performer though he is, Pacino is too captive to the method to be so spry.  As Simone, Canadian model Rachel Roberts has the poise and posture of her former profession, but she has not yet shed her mannequin manner.  With her honey-blond hair, angular face, affectless middle-distance gaze, and elongated body, she looks more striking than comely.  She is fine as an icon, but she never melts her photo-frozen image with any show of personal warmth.  It is difficult to believe the mass audience would go gaga for such a vacant abstraction of beauty.  Furthermore, the scenes in which Pacino plays her role in tandem with her image are disconcerting.  While they are Pacino’s funniest moments, they undermine the film’s premise.  He seems more feminine than the supposedly irresistible Simone.  What is needed is another Ava Gardner, whose bewitching turn as Aph-rodite illuminated the otherwise medi-ocre film adaptation of Kurt Weill’s play, One Touch of Venus.  Gardner was not much of an actress, but her sloe-eyed sensuality enabled her to move from playing a cheap department-store statue of the love goddess to incarnating her incendiary charms once she stepped off her plaster pedestal.

Despite its shortcomings, S1m0ne is worth seeing.  It is intermittently amusing and, for a Hollywood product, unusually thoughtful.  It is best when acknowledging that the human struggle to achieve the ideal is often a species of narcissism.  Like Viktor, we sometimes find our daily lives so displeasing that we cannot help trying to smuggle our own brand of Eternity Forever into the here and now, at whatever the cost to those who do not share our particular vision of perfection.

One Hour Photo is also about the yearning provoked by glossy images.  Seymour Parrish (Robin Williams) is smitten with them.  He is not focused on a romance, however.  His longing takes a more domestic turn.

Seymour develops film in a suburban SavMart and gives signs of being dangerously obsessed with his work.  Not only does he develop the pictures of his customers’ birthdays, vacations, and graduations, he studies them.  He is looking for signs of genuine human happiness and finds them in the smiling faces of Nina and Will Yorkin and their nine-year-old son, Jakob.  Although he only knows them from their occasional visits to his counter to leave and pick up film, he is so beguiled by the perfect life he discerns in the snapshots of their large, modern home that he makes additional prints of their orders and tacks them to the living-room wall of his modest apartment, where he lives alone.  The Yorkins know nothing of this.  When they think of Seymour at all, he’s Sy the photo guy, just another interchangeable member of the vast servant class that tends to their privileged needs.

The weirdness of Seymour’s project never seems to occur to him, even when he begins to fantasize that he is a part of the Yorkin household.  We watch with growing dismay as he takes steps to make his fantasy become a reality.  When Nina and Jake pick up their latest prints, Sy gives them larger ones than they had ordered, at no extra cost.  He starts driving by their home and showing up at Jake’s soccer practices.  Noticing Deepak Chopra’s book Path to Love in Nina’s shopping bag, he buys a copy and makes sure she sees him reading it.  This gives him leave to quote the self-help guru’s banal aphorism: “The things we fear the most have already happened to us.”  She is surprised he would have such an “intellectual interest” (as she calls it) and is tactless enough to say so.  Chopra is one of those feel-good “philosophers” who now and again catch the fancy of suburban deep thinkers.  Here, however, his words turn out to be perfectly apropos to what is coming in this tightly wound, carefully plotted psychological thriller.  It does not take long to realize that a terrible denouement is on the way.  Few, however, will anticipate the peculiar nature of its terror.

This is Mark Romanek’s first film.  Though not without flaws, it is a work of genuine distinction.  With the partial exception of the last 15 minutes, when he annoyingly resorts to some misleading editing to keep us guessing, Romanek displays an uncanny cinematic sense in almost every frame.  Take his alternating shots of the department store and the Yorkin home, for instance.  Sy’s workplace has that unearthly fluorescent glow common to all such establishments.  The interior of the Yorkins’ household, on the other hand, is filled with luxe appointments gleaming ominously from under a dark pall.  The contrast between commercially contrived sunniness and upscale domestic angst could not be more tellingly framed.  Williams, whose acting often walks the border between the manic and the smarmy, is admirably restrained.  With his pushed-in face and squint eyes, he makes Seymour a completely credible sadsack.  He’s the kind of person who exists on the margins of our vision everywhere we go in modern America: the middle-aged, potbellied clerk in uniform, a nondescript functionary whom we make it a practice to ignore.  We do not want to know anything about their minimum-wage lives for fear that we would have to sympathize with their defeats and disappointments.  They are the excludables.  Better to make our purchases and move on.  As the store manager who detects Sy’s eccentricities on surveillance television cameras, Gary Cole gives another dead-on performance, never a gesture or intonation out of place.  Although his part is small, his scenes with Williams are a study in the kind of managerial coldness that the little folk of our powerful nation must endure daily.  (It is a mystery to me why Cole does not get more and bigger parts.  Anyone who can hold the screen with Robin Williams has more than proved his talent.)  Romanek has also drawn a compelling performance from the pretty but usually bland Connie Nielsen, who perfectly conveys a spoiled, affluent wife.  She means well but is too dedicated to “serious shopping” to take any real notice of others.

This is a thriller that cuts deeply into our unacknowledged class divisions.  It also reports stingingly on how hostage we are to those perfect images that so often belie the truth of our lives.