Having won multiple awards for 2008’s Waltz With Bashir, an animated reminiscence of his experiences in the 1982 Lebanon War, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman has gone for broke with his followup, The Congress. Not since Southland Tales has such an overstuffed, incoherent, crazily ambitious sci-fi epic landed in theaters, threatening to severely alienate every viewer it fails to seduce. In theory, the film was inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, but Folman ditches virtually all of Lem’s story, replacing it with a muddled cautionary tale about entertainment serving as a permanent narcotic. And the whole thing, bizarrely, is centered on Robin Wright, who plays “herself”—star of The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump, etc.—in a context that bears virtually no relation to her actual status in Hollywood. It’s a folly of the first order, but one that many people will nonetheless want to see, if only because it’s so out there.
As the movie begins, Wright is enjoying a peaceful life with her two (fictional) kids, Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Sarah (Sami Gayle). Aaron has a rare disease that will eventually blind him, which makes Wright receptive to an unusual offer from Miramount Studios. (Get it?) Miramount’s technicians scan Wright’s body, capturing all of her movements and facial expressions, with the help of funny and sad stories related to her by her agent (Harvey Keitel). Having this data allows Miramount to feature Wright as the star of any movie it likes (within the terms of her contract), while she can retire to raise her children. The movie then jumps forward 20 years, by which time “Robin Wright” has improbably become the star of a hit sci-fi franchise, Rebel Robot Robin, and the real, now elderly Robin Wright has been summoned to speak at the Futurological Congress, which takes place in a “restricted animated zone” where everyone hallucinates around the clock, with each resident taking the form of a celebrity avatar.
It takes The Congress 45 laborious live-action minutes to get to the Congress, mostly because the film needs to work so hard to establish Wright, who’s never been terribly interested in stardom, as an actor whose digital facsimile the studios desperately need. Being John Malkovich had fun with the unlikelihood of Malkovich as a fantasy vessel (even pairing him with pre-sitcom Charlie Sheen); this film, by contrast, is resoundingly humorless, solemnly positing a future in which the only two surviving movie stars are Robin Wright and Tom Cruise. What’s more, the idea that flesh-and-blood actors will one day be replaced by computer simulations, while intriguing, has little or nothing to do with the dystopian vision that dominates The Congress’ second half. Which is hardly surprising, since that element doesn’t appear in Lem’s novel.
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Once Wright enters the restricted zone, Folman switches from live action to animation, which at least provides some striking imagery to distract from the thematic and narrative murkiness. The initial moment in which Wright’s car, zooming down the highway, is suddenly following a rainbow-colored ribbon between two wildly heaving neon seas, flanked by anthropomorphic cartoon ships and whales, is trippy enough to inspire hope that The Congress will finally find its footing in visual anarchy. Rather quickly, though, the parade of avatars (modeled primarily on classic Fleischer brothers and Tex Avery designs) ceases to surprise—it’s as if all of Star Wars took place in the cantina—and there’s nothing to do but watch the animated older Wright search for her now-adult kids and fall in love with the animated version of the animator (voice of Jon Hamm) who worked on her post-scan characters. By the time she returns to the real world and seeks the help of a doctor friend (Paul Giamatti), who’s living in a giant zeppelin with the rest of the non-hallucinating elite, parallels to Southland Tales start to get pretty specific. Consider that a warning or an enticement, according to taste.