The Congress (2013) / Sci Fi-Animation
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but definitely be R for sexuality, some drug use, and some language
Running Time: 122 min.
Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti, Jon Hamm (voice), Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sami Gayle, Michael Stahl-David
Director: Ari Folman
Screenplay: Ari Folman (based on the novel, "The Futurological Congress" by Stanislaw Lem)
Review published September 10, 2014
Ari Folman writes and directs this unrecognizably loose adaptation of the prescient novella, "The Futurological Congress" by noted Polish author Stanislaw Lem, starring Robin Wright (A Most Wanted Man, Adore), who is basically playing a version of herself. The aging Wright, who hasn't had a hit movie in a long time, is approached by the head of a major studio (Huston, Hitchcock) to sign the last contract she'll ever need, allowing them to scan in her three-dimensional likeness, voice and emotions digitally so that they can use her in movies for the next 20 years (think S1m0ne). Eventually, she is distilled into a hallucinogenic drug that ends up making the escape-seeking populace imagine themselves as anything their heart desires in a Toontown-esque city of pure animation.
The generically titled The Congress is perhaps most notable for its lengthy, surreal, Miyazaki-lite animated sequence, reminiscent of Folman's own animated documentary Waltz with Bashir, in the middle of the film. The heady exploration into how the movie business exploits its talent by forcing them to churn out bunk to mollify the masses makes the film particularly weighty, and perhaps one could extend the metaphor into that of the entire world, in which we are all going to our "virtual selves" online in social media, where we can represent ourselves as whomever we desire. The gist of it becomes that our world has become so bleak and uninteresting, that a turn to the escapist world of entertainment, drugs, and/or becoming our own avatars in a virtual world can help us cope with some pretty grim realities. Instead of being forced to power The Matrix, human beings willingly embrace it, as it's far more preferable to the truth.
The use of a fictionalized version of Wright draws mixed results. While it does make the story more interesting to use the real Robin Wright's filmography, especially her co-starring turn in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump to ground this otherwise fantastical film into some sort of reality, it also makes the mistake of being overbearing in her importance. Wright is a solid actress, to be sure, but she's just never been a box office draw, and certainly is far from the kind of cultural icon that Folman writes the part to be. Wright's not bad in the role, it's just that her real-life importance in the realm of popular culture isn't nearly as significant as the story here makes her out to be, so when the people of the future begin to see her as some sort of goddess, it lacks credibility. Wright is fine for the role, but the role shouldn't have been tailored for Wright; she could have just played a more popular fictional actress that had the credentials necessary for the character.
The Congress has some interesting ideas, but the live-action scenes are wooden, the dialogue feels unnatural, and the momentum overall feels increasingly draggy, with tedium setting in not too far into what should be the most fascinating moments of the film -- the world of pure animation. Even the Congress of the film's title seems to lack a tangible explanation, leading to the feeling that Folman's mish-mash of ideas were plentiful, but he lacks the storytelling abilities at this early point of his career to carry them through. As an experimental attempt to craft a lasting work, Folman certainly deserves a certain admiration, but his film is just too incoherent and inconsistent in its delivery to envelop most viewers with the philosophical impact aimed for.
©2014 Vince Leo