THE CONGRESS attempts in 122 minutes what our elected (laugh) Congress wouldn’t have the guts or humanity to do in that many years: side with the spark and beauty of individual human dignity against techno-corporate ‘freedom’ that masks destruction as innovation, ensuring ‘progress’ marches to a future of digitized cultural and spiritual lobotomy. In cartoons! That it uses satire and animation to state its case is fitting, in an all-consuming Consumer World that seems content with erasing itself into one big, loud, stupid sequel, Civilization 6: Branded.
Director Ari Folman took the theme of this 2013 provoker from Stanislaw Lem’s dystopian 1971 sci-fi short story “The Futurological Congress”, but designed his screenplay as a loose adaptation only, grafting the idea of today’s tidal wave of technical imagery magic (seen here—literally illustrated– as the Dark Art variety) and its socialization dilemmas onto Lem’s hallucinogen-confused Tomorrow where illusion and reality are so mixed/fixed people lose their identity. A dopey Utopia.
The fun conceit-hook here is having Robin Wright play ‘Robin Wright’, a bravely self-kidding version of herself (aging actress who ‘should’ have been The Next Big Thing but blew it). Roles not appearing, with a child needing continual, extensive medical care, Robin agrees to ‘sell herself’, that is, her digitized likeness, to a studio (‘Miramount‘) who will use it/her as they see fit. She’ll never have to work again—and can’t: the yuck end of the stick is that she–the real Robin– can never again act in anything, anywhere. Only the ever-young computer-generated Robin has that right, which rests in the maw of Miramount.
The internally salivating studio head makes his pitch: “We at Miramount, want to… want to scan you. All of you – your body, your face, your emotion, your laughter, your tears, your climaxing, your happiness, your depressions, your… fears, longings. We want to sample you, we want to preserve you, we want… all this, this… this thing, this thing called…”Robin Wright”. When she guardedly asks, “What will you do with this… thing ? That you call Robin Wright?”, he replies with the equanimity of the powerful and certain (and certifiable) “We’ll do all the things that your Robin Wright wouldn’t do.
The first part of the story sets up in live action, with Wright, agent Harvey Keitel, studio boss Danny Huston and doctor Paul Giamatti. Skipping ahead twenty years, the older Wright (with subtly convincing aging makeup) seeks out some inconvenient truths in a kaleidoscopic animated world. No more plot reveal—just watch, laugh, ponder, judge.
Six different animation studios were used to design the trippy pretend (is it?) comix realm Wright enters for a large part of the running time, a continually engaging, often delightful, suitably demented, and jam-crammed blend of the rich playfulness of Max Fleischer, Frank Tashlin, Walt Disney and Chuck Jones, the robotic sleekness of anime ala Studio Ghibli and the rank jolts of Ralph Bakshi and R. Crumb. Something sly, silly or sick slinks, stumbles or stalks in every corner of a given frame. Might be time to call that chemistry-oriented buddy you used to know….?
It could be that director Folman’s audacity trips over itself a tad as things move to the decision-forced wrapup, though that’s no real crime, as a lot of concept-based projects run into the same now-what? conundrum. In movies, the future rarely looks comforting (let alone in our onrushing reality) and what often tends to drag at the enjoyment factor is the omnipresent background oppression that eventually dominates and subsumes the initial visual kicks.
On the flesh & blood side, the elegant/luminous/sad Wright doesn’t have to do anything more to be impressive in a scene other than simply show up; the devilish Huston is always a kick and Giamatti gets to dial down his standard fervor to a purr and be kindly this time around. Keitel is stiff and wooden to start with, but then he’s gifted a monologue that registers heartfelt. Jon Hamm provides his voice to one of the animated characters, while the playing of Robin’s children in live action is handled by Kodi Smit-McPhee and the keenly smart and confident Sami Gayle.
Put together for $9,459,000, its limited art-house release saw a sad worldwide take of just $456,000. For those who seek it out, this thoughtful, giddy, diabolical, tragic peek at the trap of losing everything for the sake of having anything is, if not a full-on home run, a good solid whack to third base.