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Review: 'The Congress' is a crazy, unwieldy sci-fi held together by Robin Wright

Robin Wright is the center of gravity in "The Congress," which turns from a live-action Hollywood satire into an animated spectacular on a downer future.

Robin Wright has fun having her every facial expression and body movement scanned into a computer in "The Congress." Credit: Drafthouse Films Robin Wright has fun having her every facial expression and body movement scanned into a computer in "The Congress."
Credit: Drafthouse Films

'The Congress'
Director: Ari Folman
Stars: Robin Wright, Jon Hamm
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

There are two movies in “The Congress,” and they…almost fit together. The transition isn’t smooth, and it takes some thinking on the viewer’s part to make it work, at least intellectually. The first is a Hollywood satire, one that seems both too obvious to have devoted a whole film to and scarily possibly prophetic. The other goes from live action to an animation spectacular that is debatably knee-jerk and reactionary but also as well scarily possibly prophetic. It’s a crazy, unwieldy film that comes together if you will it to do so.

Granted, both have someone doing a very good job at grounding them. Robin Wright plays a version of Robin Wright: a difficult actress who is offered something she might not be able to refuse. Danny Huston plays one of those rude and swaggering movie moguls you only see in movies (for a studio called “Miramount,” har har). He tells her the industry is shifting to all-digital — including its actors. He asks her to sign a contract in which her every body movement and facial expression is scanned into a computer, preserving her young self in the movies. She’ll never have to act again, since computers will do it all for her. In fact, the stipulation is that she never acts in person again.

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And then, after a steadily-paced first half in the real world — filled with some terrific scenes, including a monologue by Harvey Keitel to Wright as she’s being scanned that keeps floating between being sincere and calculating — the film jumps 20 years. The older Wright attends a convention taking place in the new popular form of entertainment: an animated world, accessible by drugs, in which viewers can become any movie star they want, or at least a cartoon version of same. This section is based, very loosely, on a novel, “The Futurological Congress” by Polish philosophical sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem (“Solaris”), which envisions a future in which everyone escapes through drugs into their own fantastical world, leaving behind the grimness of reality to swim about in a frenzied utopia of the head.

Robin Wright and Paul Giamatti brood in the live-action section of "The Congress." Credit: Drafthouse Films Robin Wright and Paul Giamatti brood in the live-action section of "The Congress."
Credit: Drafthouse Films

Writer-director Ari Folman did something of similar conceptual ambition with the 1982 Lebanon War in the animated “Waltz with Bashir.” But he doesn’t make the connection between the two halves as explicit as he perhaps should have. They do connect, though, if you try: It posits that the next evolutionary step for entertainment is for it to go from mere escapism to literal escapism. The animated world is a purely immersive one, where people abandon real life to live in their heads, in turn chucking to the side all human connection, including family ties. The heart of “The Congress” is the movie’s “Robin Wright” getting lost in this world and then trying to find her son (played as a kid by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has gone on his own journey deep within this raucous and possibly impenetrable zone.

If Folman’s script is choppy —it doesn't help having Jon Hamm on retainer as a character who does nothing but explain a confusing world to Wright/us — it is smoothed out, as much as it can be, by Wright. The actress has aged from an anonymous pretty princess into a fascinating screen presence. She’s impossible not to watch in “The Congress”’ first half, but she doesn’t loose anything when she turns toon. The animators nail her deep, sad, probing eyes, while her vocal recording seems to have been done so loosely that she never feels like she’s standing in a booth, recording written lines. She’s present even when she’s absent. She’s the center of gravity in a film that’s wild and reckless — densely packed flowing images that suggest Tex Avery madcap crossed with “Yellow Submarine” trippy crossed with a Boschian hellscape. There are numerous times when “The Congress” almost gets as lost as its characters, but Wright keeps pulling it back down to earth, ensuring that, as a glimpse into humanity’s possible future, it winds up a pretty profound bummer.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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