Ari Folman, the director behind the stunning “Waltz with Bashir,” has delivered something altogether different with his latest, “The Congress.”
The movie is basically two movies in one that are sort of connected. On one hand, it’s a very effective satire of the current and future state of the movies and the acting profession. On the other, it’s an existential (and animated) meditation on identity, technology, and life that creates a completely different vibe from the live action segments.
Both are good, but I confess to being a little more interested in the first, live action part of the movie, that which deals with an aging actress getting a very strange offer.
Robin Wright, playing a partially fictionalized version of herself, is approaching her mid-forties, a time where Hollywood normally starts turning its back on “B grade” female stars. She’s never truly blossomed into the bona fide movie star her agent (Harvey Keitel) and studio head (Danny Huston) thought she would become based on her work in “The Princess Bride.” So the studio has a plan, one that will return her to her youthful glory and ensure she will never have to truly act again.
They offer Robin one final contract, a contract that requires all of her body and emotions to be scanned for future use in motion pictures. The contract guarantees that she will never be portrayed as older than early thirties, won’t appear in porn, and a few other conditions. In return, Robin can no longer appear in movies, plays, commercials, game shows, etc. unless they are Miramount projects. Her image, her whole being, will be the property of Miramount studios.
Wow, right? A great premise for some sort of dark comedy, where we see Robin Wright in all sorts of strange movies beyond her control. She rides off into the sunset with some big paycheck never to be seen again other than her virtual image in movies. The acting profession, as we know it, dies.
Ultimately, that’s not where “The Congress” takes you. It’s more interested in messing with your brain regarding the overall state of humanity and identity, rather than just telling the story of actors and actresses losing their gigs.
After a mind-blowing sequence where Robin is scanned into a computer, the action jumps forward 20 years where her contract requires an extension. We see Robin in an action/sci-fi film where she is blowing up robots (films now play on blimps in the sky rather than theaters). A trip to the studio now requires her to snort a hallucinogenic drug and become animated. She does this very thing, and the movie delves into trippy, deep animation mode.S
he attends some sort of bizarre, gigantic rally-sort of like an Apple event on animated steroids-where the audience finds out Robin’s likeness can be consumed via their favorite beverages the next day. Now, fans can actually be Robin rather than just watching her on big screens. She has become nothing but a product.
All of this is really interesting, even if it stops playing the notions for laughs and tries to go spiritually deep. In some ways, you can fault Folman for dispensing of a great opportunity for biting satire, but he actually does achieve that level of biting satire for a good portion of his film. It’s just that he lets it all go in favor of a more universal subject covered in the ambitiously animated second half.
Robin interacts with a bunch of virtual images, including Tom Cruise, Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. She also gets a love interest that looks a bit like Clive Owen but is voiced by Jon Hamm. In both of Robin’s worlds, the real world and the animated one, the constant presence would be her ill son (Kodi Smit McPhee) and his special kites. It’s pretty hard to explain. You just need to see it.
Wright is extraordinary in the movie, positively luminescent in a film that frankly questions her relevance in not only the acting world, but also the world in general. Huston and Keitel provide some of the film’s good, nasty humor before it goes animated/existential (although Huston’s likeness does appear as a villainous presence in the animation).
“The Congress” might be a bit of a head-scratcher, but it is successful in much of what it attempts. It’s also the kind of showcase Wright richly deserves.