Review: The Congress
PLOT: Aging actress Robin Wright, feeling overwhelmed by her real-life duties as a mother of two, decides to have her likeness uploaded into a computer, enabling filmmakers to use the digital version of Robin Wright to do whatever they want.
REVIEW: That plot synopsis above doesn't really tell the whole story. Not by a long shot. THE CONGRESS is a testament to the power - and pitfalls - of unconventional, outside-the-box filmmaking. Several of its sequences are dazzling, touching and profound, and it is overflowing with perceptive ideas, but it's also a very uneven affair. Part in-depth character study, part psychedelic trip-out, the film is sure to become a beloved cult classic for a select group of filmgoers who like their films inscrutable and unpredictable, while others will be flummoxed - and have their experience ruined - by its sudden shift in personality about an hour in.
I'm on the fence, because I consider myself a lover of offbeat, hard-to-pin-down cinema, yet I can't easily accept a movie that spends an hour engaging me in its world only to toss it aside in favor of a completely new direction. And by this, I don't mean the tone shifts from dramatic to comedic, or a plot twist is thrown in that changes the game in startling fashion. I mean THE CONGRESS begins as a thoughtful drama about an aging actress struggling with her life and career and halfway through segues into an absolutely bonkers animated movie with barely a warning. The result is frustrating and fascinating in equal measure.
To begin, Robin Wright gives a moving and brave turn as an alternate version of herself: "Robin Wright" is an aging actress who has become all but irrelevant. A single mother with two children, one with a severe health issue, she's not been seen on the screen in years, as her tough-love agent (Harvey Keitel) harshly reminds her. But there is a way for Wright to return to the limelight without sacrificing her maternal duties: advanced technology has made it possible to scan an actor into a computer, make them any age they wish, and program them to be the ideal performer. That is to say, the "real" Robin Wright can essentially retire while the CGI Robin will continue acting for decades, never aging, forever the perfect Hollywood star who won't quibble about contracts or give the producers a difficult time.
Both an intriguing statement on the way Hollywood treats its aging starlets and a prescient warning of where movie technology may be headed (hell, can this really be that far away?), THE CONGRESS is solemn and darkly satirical in its first half, with Wright shining in several dramatically intense scenes. (The film opens with her agent brutally explaining how washed up she is, while another sequence sees her run the gamut of emotions as her visage is scanned into the computer.) Though it's admittedly a bit slow-going, the film appears to be headed toward being one of the more pointed inside-Hollywood tales in recent memory.
But then THE CONGRESS takes a hard left at about the halfway mark. Twenty years after she's ben scanned into the computer and seen her career - or the career of her CG double - thrive as the star of cheesy action spectacles, Wright heads to the "Futurist Congress," a massive convention headed by "Miramount" Studios. When entering this event, you take a drug that suddenly turns you into an animated character, and the world you enter is something like a combination of a Ralph Bakshi cartoon and "Heavy Metal" magazine. As the animated world envelops Wright, and the audience, the story too takes a completely different form: anti-technology extremists attack the Congress and Wright finds herself both rebelling against what she has become and attempting to escape a brutal fate. THE CONGRESS is now a candy-coated fever-dream, with an assortment of otherworldly characters and heightened takes on real celebrities.
Directed by Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir), THE CONGRESS is no doubt a singular experience, so idiosyncratic that it feels of another time, perhaps the 70s, when they made movies that truly defied expectation and weren't afraid to challenge the audience. Folman proves to be a director capable of working in both mediums, his scenes in "reality" full of quiet desperation, while his animated sequences are vivid and extremely bizarre. (I foresee many a stoner basking in the film's far-out universe.) He's also assembled a terrific cast, with Wright's strong performance leading the way for a great supporting team of veterans, including a splendid Keitel, Danny Huston (as the son-of-a-bitch head of Miramount) and Paul Giamatti (as a gentle doctor).
But THE CONGRESS ultimately doesn't quite add up to a cogent whole. By the time you're wrapped up in the animated anarchy of the second half, the first half's emotional impact is all but washed away. Folman shows the dynamic spirit of a genuine independent, a director brimming with strong ideas, but here he's not quite assembled all of his quirky notions into a sturdy narrative. It's an admirable experiment, and one I will recommend to those of you itching for an atypical moviegoing venture - but an experiment is indeed what it ends up resembling.
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