Directed by: Ari Folman.
Written by: Ari Folman based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem.
Starring: Robin Wright (Robin Wright), Harvey Keitel (Al), Jon Hamm (Dylan Truliner), Paul Giamatti (Dr. Barker), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Aaron Wright), Danny Huston (Jeff), Sami Gayle (Sarah Wright), Michael Stahl-David (Steve), Michael Landes (Maxi), Sarah Shahi (Michelle).
There is a lot to admire about Ari Folman’s The Congress, even if I ended up thinking that it doesn’t really accomplish what it sets out to do. It is a film that touches on a lot of ideas, but doesn’t really do most of them justice – except for the rather obvious fact that Hollywood is cruel to women once they hit 40. But it does contain a terrific lead performance by Robin Wright – not really playing herself, but a version of herself in the film. And the animated sequences – which make up approximately two-thirds of the movie, are absolutely stunning. It’s one of the more ambitious films of the year, and even if it’s doesn’t “work” in the traditional sense, it does so much else, that I’m not sure it really needs to work too.
The film opens with Wright, a single parent raising two children – the well-adjusted teenager Sarah (Sami Gayle) and the younger Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is lost in his own world – being offered the last contract she will ever sign. The head of a studio, Jeff (Danny Huston) wants to “buy” everything that makes Robin Wright Robin Wright. They will scan her body, her emotions, everything about her, and then use that in a computer program to produce movie after movie. After that, they can keep her young forever (it’s part of the contract – she will always be 33). Then Wright will never be allowed to act again. She has trouble with this, but eventually agrees. When she is having trouble with the scanning process – getting all the emotions necessary, her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) tells her a story – that starts out amusing, and then turns slowly darker and then downright cruel. The movie then flashes forward 20 years, with Wright heading to a different world to be honored. She has to take a drug to cross over, and when she does she becomes an animated version of herself, in an animated world. In the last 20 years, Wright has become a bigger star than ever before – but movies have essentially become irrelevant. Everyone now essentially has a choice – live in blissful ignorance, being whoever you want to be in the animated world, or except the grim reality of the world as it really is and wait for death. Most people choose ignorance.
The film is based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem – who also wrote Solaris, the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece (and Steven Soderbergh’s underrated remake). The film is certainly sci-fi in its plot – somewhat like The Matrix – although with no action. But basically the story seems like an excuse for Folman to indulge his fantasies. The animated world he creates is visually stunning, and full of imagination in every frame. It pays lip service to a lot of lofty ideas, but basically Folman concentrates on his magnificent visuals. What keeps the story from being lost completely is Wright in the lead role – where whether she’s animated or not, she is mesmerizing. Wright, who made a comeback in Netflix’s ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining House of Cards, delivers her best performance in a movie in years. The one idea that the movie has that it fully addresses is the idea of aging actresses in Hollywood, and how the system basically chews them up and spits them out – where they are replaced by a younger version of themselves. In this movie, that literally happens to Wright – who is more interested in her family than her career. When she’s told she has made one mistake after another than basically ruined her career, it’s all related to her family – particularly Aaron. She has her priorities straight, and to Hollywood, that’s a bad thing,
The Congress is constantly interesting, but never truly involving. For the first hour or so, I thought the film was building to something. Once I realized it wasn’t, I simply sat back and let the visuals wash over me. The film is gorgeous to look at, but unlike his film, Waltz with Bashir which married form and content perfectly, this film is all style. It is such an ambition and beautiful film though I don’t really care. If you interested in animation not aimed at children, The Congress is a must see.