There are different milemarkers along the road to “The Congress”’ brilliant conclusion where many audience members will check out. For some it may come with the instigating premise – that “Miramount” Studios wants to buy the digital image of actress Robin Wright (played by Robin Wright) to make whatever movies – and publicity statements – they want via computers while the “real” Robin Wright goes into media exile.
Others may jump ship when, years later, Wright goes to the “Futurological Congress,” held at the Abrahama Hotel owned by Miramount-Nagasaki, where perception is (literally) animated by drug-induced hallucinations. When questions are asked like “is this real or in my head?” and the answer comes back “both,” there are some who are simply hard-wired to reject this sort of mind-scrambling sci-fi.
By the third act, where all of existence is reprogrammed into individualized utopias of personally-programmed bliss, some will roll their eyes or maybe even let a raspberry rip at the screen. But those who revel in trippy science fiction (“The Congress” is very loosely based on a Stanislaw Lem novel) may end up drooling like the pacified narco-entertainment zombies that are, according to the film, our future.
Director Ari Folman, the Israeli director whose animated war memoir “Waltz With Bashir” was equally striking, makes it easy to shrug this movie off. There isn’t much in the way of world-building and the rules seem to get created as they go along. (One could counter that and say this confusion is intentional and adds to the film’s dreamlike nature. Even though I’m boosting this one, that’s a stretch.) There’s also a tendency to have moments when the actors look one another in the eye and just declare the subtext to one another. (Also, and I hate to diss on my beloved Paul Giamatti, but I get the impression he had about sixty seconds worth of prep on this film before he was handed his lines.)
These flat notes, however, are soon left in the wake in the wonderful, bold and idiosyncratic filmmaking that is on display. Even before the cut to animation, there is a strangeness that permeates each scene. Robin Wright is the perfect person to represent “every actress” in that I hardly spend a lot of time thinking about her (and when I do half the time I’m thinking of Elizabeth Shue.) She and her two children live in a converted hangar near an airport – for symbolic reasons, I’m sure, but also because the imagery this offers is really striking.
Things get wild both visually and in terms of storytelling method once Wright gets “scanned.” From inside of a geodesic dome of light (wearing full spandex) Wright is coaxed into varying emotions by a beautiful and strange monologue from agent/mentor Harvey Keitel. The story he tells digs into one of Folman’s main points, the cycle exploitation and leeching that exists in show business.
The first half of “The Congress,” while still fascinating, does suffer a bit from keeping its focus on the gripes and accusations between Hollywood actors and producers. (The grubby hands of interfering bean counters are wonderfully represented by a scenery-chomping Danny Huston.) Once the Philip K. Dick-meets-“Inception” second half kicks in, the implications grow more universal.
“Inception” is just one of a host of movies “The Congress” reminded me of. The full list includes “Enter the Void,” “Antiviral,” “Synecdoche, New York,” “Wings of Desire,” “Children of Men,” “Holy Motors,” and “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Also, hunting the frame for Easter eggs (is this the first movie to put Ron Jeremy, Muhammad Ali, Rene Magritte and Jesus together?) is like scrutinizing the pages of an Alan Moore comic.
These unlicensed, hilarious cameos come when future society is allowed to just be whomever they want to be. Ari Folman, however, is a filmmaker who, almost to a fault is, determined to make movies in his own inimitable way. It may not be for everyone, but his blend of gorgeous fatalism hits the right chord for me.
SCORE: 8.7 / 10