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Movie actors, as is well known, are little more than mannequins. All that matters is how they look and how they move; everything else can be done in post-production. So it follows that screen actors will eventually be replaced by “virtual” performers. After all, everyone was captivated by the computer-generated cast of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. And what human actor can summon the affection that greets one of contemporary cinema’s most endearing creations, Jar Jar Binks?

OK, so maybe this virtual-actor thing isn’t such a great idea. And if it isn’t, then neither is S1M0NE, writer-director Andrew Niccol’s satire about a has-been Hollywood director who stages a comeback based on the powerful appeal of S1M0NE, his mysterious new discovery. A sleek, sexy Euroblonde, S1M0NE is actually Simulation One, a computer concoction whose inventor, Hank (Elias Koteas), dies soon after pitching his “vactor” to Viktor (Al Pacino). How does Hank die? From a brain tumor that resulted from too much time in front of a computer screen, thus proving that a terrible price must be paid for fooling Mother Nature—or the Screen Actors Guild, for that matter.

For Viktor, S1M0NE arrives at a felicitous moment. Childish superstar Nicola (Winona Ryder) has just walked off the set of the director’s latest film, Sunrise, Sunset, promising to sue if he uses any footage of her. Studio boss Elaine (Catherine Keener), Viktor’s ex-wife, has responded by junking his contract. Viktor proceeds to finish the project on his own, however, and with S1M0NE in the starring role, the film is a hit. Of course, S1M0NE becomes a superstar, and the public fascination with her only grows when Viktor explains variously that his new star is a recluse, an Internet addict, and an agoraphobic. A gossipy tabloid sends a team (Jason Schwartzman and Pruitt Taylor Vince) to track the elusive sensation, and Elaine and other studio execs insist on meeting her, leading Viktor to stage fake sightings and—most improbably—the “Splendid Isolation” concert, with S1M0NE projected holographically onstage to sing “Natural Woman.”

Viktor soon tires of being upstaged by S1M0NE, so he makes a pretentious, downbeat flick and credits his creation as its director. When audiences cheer, he books S1M0NE for a video-hookup TV interview in which she, apparently drunk, extols smoking, guns, fur, and global warming. Nothing can alienate S1M0NE’s faithful fans, however, so Viktor decides to kill her. But can S1M0NE be killed, and if she can, will Viktor be arrested for her murder? (For those who must know S1M0NE’s every aspect, stick around: There’s one more brief scene after the final credits.)

The tension between reality and simulation is a favorite theme for Niccol, who wrote The Truman Show (in which a man’s entire life is fake) and wrote and directed Gattaca (in which a man fakes his genetic code). There’s no tension in S1M0NE, however, in part because the truth of today’s celebrity culture is much stranger than Niccol’s fiction. The director’s swipes at clueless showbiz addicts—”You’re more authentic than the people who worship you,” Viktor tells S1M0NE—might sting, except that the average Entertainment Weekly reader probably has more knowledge of Hollywood than Niccol demonstrates here. (And the typical PC user definitely knows more about computers than Niccol.)

Few of S1M0NE’s details ring true. Viktor directs grandly bleak art films whose images suggest the work of Tarkovsky, Antonioni, or Angelopoulos—the kind of stuff Hollywood hasn’t bankrolled in 30 years. S1M0NE is the sort of actress who might acquire an American cult following, but she is unlikely to become any better known in the United States than, say, Charlotte Gainsbourg, the star of My Wife Is an Actress, last week’s self-conscious entertainment-biz comedy. The notion that S1M0NE could make an instant transition from an art-movie director’s muse to teen-pop superstar—Anna Karina becomes Britney Spears, dubbed by Mary J. Blige—is unconvincing. And the final plot twist is just another variation on the well-worn jokes about parents who get their kids to program their VCRs.

The film does get one thing right, though: S1M0NE herself. Beautiful and aloof, she could indeed be an art-house phenomenon, as long as she starred in subtler movies than this one. Viktor explains that his vactor is a composite of famed Hollywood leading ladies, and the film’s official line is that S1M0NE is played by…S1M0NE. In fact, she’s impersonated by model-turned-actress Rachel Roberts, who’s no more virtual than Pacino or Ryder. S1M0NE means to be a spoof of how fantasy has supplanted reality, but

the real joke is that it must use an actual woman to conjure a convincingly virtual one.

At a time when few foreign-language films hook U.S. distributors, there are a handful of subgenres that usually attract stateside attention. One is the cuisine flick, a good bet for the Julia Child audience; another is the tale of a cold or crusty loner who is forced to take responsibility for a child. Mostly Martha combines both categories, but that doesn’t mean that German writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck has doubled the fun. Presentable but predictable, the movie reduces the ingredients of Babette’s Feast and Kolya to a thin broth.

Martha (Martina Gedeck) is “the second-best chef” in Hamburg, where she cooks a sort of upscale, Frenchified German fare. Although her demeanor is mostly chilly, she sometimes bursts heatedly into the dining room to lambaste diners who complain about the preparation of their dinners. Introduced talking to her shrink, Martha has no friends and no apparent interest in acquiring any. She does love her sister, though, and is happy when Sis announces her intention to bring her daughter for a visit. Cut to Martha in tears: Her sister has died in an autobahn crash, and 8-year-old Lina (Maxime Foerste) is hospitalized.

Lina moves in with Martha, but she isn’t happy about it. She won’t eat her aunt’s cooking—which is devastating, because food is Martha’s only means of expressing affection. At the restaurant, Martha is outraged to learn that a flamboyant new sous-chef has been hired without her consent. Mario (Sergio Castellitto) is Italian, which means that he—like his native cuisine—is bursting with the roguish life force that uptight Martha and traumatized Lina so need. Coincidentally, almost the only thing that Lina knows about the father she’s never met is that he’s Italian.

Is Mario Lina’s father? Nettelbeck doesn’t go that far, but the pieces of Martha, Mario, and Lina’s lives soon begin to fit together all too tidily. Mostly Martha is coolly upscale, with a soundtrack by no less a connoisseur of minimalist chic than ECM Records founder Manfred Eicher. Yet no sentimental cliche is left undeployed as the film arranges its three central characters into an instant family. A series of montages take the story every place you’d expect it to go.

There aren’t a lot of surprises in the basic scenarios of such crotchety-adult/vulnerable-kid parables as the Czech Republic’s Kolya, Brazil’s Central Station, and China’s Happy Times, yet those films use their stories to tellingly critique their respective societies. Despite its reliance on stereotypes of frosty Germans and volcanic Italians, Mostly Martha doesn’t examine any territory beyond the narrow turf of its routine dramedy plot. Perhaps what they say is true: An unhappy country is unhappy after its own fashion, but all happy countries are alike. CP