The Congress is a movie of enormous ambition, so much so that what it means to achieve may in fact be beyond the grasp of its director and cast, talented as they are. The film starts small – with a close-up and a simple idea – and gradually expands in terms of form and content. It ends up flirting with greatness, even if it doesn’t quite attain it.
That close-up is of Robin Wright, who is playing a variation on herself. She’s listening intently, skeptically, as her agent (Harvey Keitel) tells her that after years of struggling to find work, she has a mysterious offer from her former studio. As a slimy executive played by Danny Huston explains, they want to scan Robin’s movements and expressions, to be used in digital performances in perpetuity. The plan is to keep her “forever young,” not only by reviving her Princess Bride, along with Jenny from Forrest Gump, but also by casting a young “her” in new parts. In exchange, she’ll be paid handsomely, although she must also agree to never act again.
At first glance this may sound like a variation on an idea already explored in 2002’s Simone, in which Al Pacino plays a director who creates the world’s first computer-generated actress (prescient writer-director Andrew Niccol was the filmmaker there). Yet The Congress, written and directed by Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir), goes much deeper than Hollywood satire. Thrown into the mix are plot elements from Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, a satirical science-fiction novel about hallucinatory realities, as well as extended animated sequences. By the time we find ourselves in a futuristic New York City made up of “suspended gardens,” The Congress has gone over the rainbow/through the looking glass/choose your trippy allusion.
It turns out that creating a digital version of Robin Wright was only the beginning, the first step in the development of virtual entertainment realities. After Robin agrees to the scan, the movie jumps ahead 20 years. Her deal with the studio has earned her an invitation to The Congress, a gathering in the desert where people inhale hallucinatory chemicals that enable them to envision themselves as cartoon versions of anyone (or anything). The crowd is an animated mosh pit of celebrities, movie characters and monsters, a place where “Elvis,” “Jesus” and “Dracula” rub shoulders at the bar.
Folman and Goodman use impressionistic imagery to eloquently capture fragile psychological states.
Working (as he did on Bashir) with animation director Yoni Goodman, Folman offers imagery that is at turns haunting, witty and breathtaking. In the early scenes we meet Robin’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has an affinity for kites and suffers from a syndrome that is causing him to lose his sight and hearing. Later on, Robin’s animated imagination pictures the two of them being slowly pulled by a red box kite across a frozen landscape. Near the end, when Robin can custom-design her own hallucination, she chooses to experience life in the sensory-deprived way her son did, and we get a poignant animated replay of the early scenes from his POV. As in Bashir, which involved animated memories of the 1982 Lebanon War, Folman and Goodman use impressionistic imagery to eloquently capture fragile psychological states.
If Bashir was specific in its exploration of post-traumatic stress, The Congress is more grandly existential, especially as it imagines what a virtual-reality future might mean for the human race. Those at The Congress celebrate the “chemical formula of free choice,” yet we also meet defectors from this brave new world who have found that such freedom – ultimate self-determination – is something of a trap. When we can be anyone, we’re no one. And, as Robin reveals in her pursuit of her son, we no longer mean anything to anyone else.
I could go on praising the inventiveness and implications of the animated sequences, but at some point I have to get to the elephant in the room: the live-action scenes in The Congress simply don’t work, and they make up the crucial opening third of the film. Rickety and unsure, they feature oddly calibrated performances from both Huston and Keitel, who are required to handle an awful lot of narrative exposition. The family scenes involving Wright, McPhee and Sami Gayle as Robin’s teen daughter are also strangely inert, which ultimately means that Robin’s attempts to reunite with her son later in the film don’t quite have the emotional pull that they should.
I wonder, too, if Wright was the correct actress on whom to center this conceit. Her real-world legacy, frankly, isn’t as monumental as the movie would have us believe, and Wright’s performance here doesn’t suggest that her career should be reconsidered. (The scanning sequence, in which she processes a series of emotions in rapid succession, seems designed to be her showcase moment, but her handling of it struck me as forced.) On a visual and theoretical level, The Congress is thrilling, but the movie is missing a heart. And the irony is, that’s something – at least at this point – only a stirring, flesh-and-blood performance could have provided.