A stylistic triumph that bites off more than it can chew in the thematic department.
Our story begins with a familiar figure: actress Robin Wright (playing herself), who has hit a rough patch in her career. One day, she gets a bizarre offer from Miramount studio chief Jeff Green (Danny Huston, The Proposition): the studio would like to “scan” her and purchase the rights to use her image in movies. Thanks to advanced technology, Miramount will be able to make it look as if Robin Wright circa Forrest Gump is starring in a brand new sci-fi blockbuster. The only catch? The real Robin Wright will be banned from acting forever. After some soul-searching, Robin reluctantly accepts the offer and slips into obscurity while her avatar reaches newfound stardom. And then… well, things get strange.
Ari Folman’s The Congress is an extraordinarily ambitious film — a fusion of live-action and animation which tackles deep, complex themes through an eclectic collection of visual ideas. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of ambitious film that ends collapsing under its own weight; unable to find a way to connect the dots and find focus amidst its collection of heady themes. There are moments in which the movie threatens to approach Charlie Kaufman-esque brilliance, but it’s considerably more heavy-handed in the presentation of its ideas that Kaufman’s films have ever been.
The world presented by the film is a little different from the one we actually live in. What’s different about it? Well, the technology at Hollywood’s disposal seems considerably more advanced, for one thing. For another, it’s a world in which the well-regarded Robin Wright has become a washed-up B-lister who has made fifteen years of spectacularly awful choices (though her successes in The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump and other early works are mentioned repeatedly). In reality, Wright has appeared in a pretty impressive list of well-respected flicks over the past fifteen years. It’s the first of the film’s many alterations to the world as we know it, but as The Congress proceeds, those alterations become progressively less convincing.
The first half of The Congress plays like a nightmare someone had after watching The Polar Express, envisioning a world in which flesh-and-blood actors are replaced with digital facsimiles. The problem is that those cries of doom sounded unconvincing when Robert Zemeckis was messing around with motion-capture technology, and they sound even more unconvincing in this film. I don’t buy that the world so eagerly embrace a transition to an entertainment medium featuring no actual human input — even animated movies have real voice actors, and we take pleasure in hearing the specific choices those actors make. I’m also not sure how the “real” Robin Wright doing a bit of stage acting on the side could hurt whatever the studio is doing with her avatar, but Huston threatens to kill her if she ever acts anywhere ever again (an action which seems to be perfectly legal in the near-future).
Things get slipperier and foggier in the second half, when Wright makes a trip to a virtual reality world where everyone appears as an animated character. As Folman’s images get more dazzling, his storytelling gets messier and more heavy-handed. Revolutions are held and reality begins to collapse, leaving us with a dreamlike narrative in which the line between reality and delusion grows increasingly blurry. There are so many meaty, complicated issues being tackled in The Congress (and it’s difficult to get into them without delivering spoilers), but few of them are tackled with much clarity. Additionally, the sci-fi premise the film is rooted in feels so convoluted that it prevents us from really engaging with the material on a basic storytelling level (much less a cloudy metaphorical level). There are admittedly a handful of dazzling self-contained moments that shine through (most of them courtesy of Wright, who bring a compelling delicacy to a movie that often pushes way too hard), but the copious disparate elements never congeal into a compelling or focused statement.
The Congress (Blu-ray) certainly looks spectacular, offering a fine 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that highlights the film’s wildly diverse visuals. The live-action material looks just dandy, but the disc soars once the animation kicks in. It’s difficult to soak in all of Folman’s details in a single viewing — I found myself pausing the film on multiple occasions just to get a better look at all of the nifty visual ideas he had stuffed into the frame. Detail is superb throughout, and colors are bright and vibrant. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is effective and remarkably nuanced, capturing a fine balance between a host of competing elements.
Balance is strong throughout, too, with quiet dialogue scenes and more chaotic crowd scenes co-existing comfortably. Supplements include a commentary with Folman, production designer David Polonsky and animation director Yani Goodman, an interview with Wright, a trailer and a booklet featuring notes from the director.
The jury’s still out.