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Entries in Congress/The [2014] (1)

Thursday
Aug072014

The Congress (2014)

Looney TRONs

I saw The Congress last week, under conditions that were less than ideal. Delirious from several twenty-hour days and battling my ulcers' ulcers, I sat down with Ari Folman's head-trip of a social commentary while already halfway into the dream state. Looking back, I wonder if this was the only way to watch this movie, absent hallucinogenics.

Robin Wright stars as an actress named Robin Wright. You might recognize her from such classic films as The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump--and there she is, passing a beautifully painted poster of herself as Princess Buttercup in the long hallway of Miramount Pictures. Accompanied by long-time agent Al (Harvey Keitel), Wright is on her way to meet with Jeff (Danny Huston), a studio head with a proposition at once insulting, terrifying, and irresistible: new technological breakthroughs have allowed Hollywood to scan actors and house their looks, movements, and emotions on hard drives.

The process results in a near-perfect digital identity. This, along with other fabricated characters and environments, will allow directors to make live-action films wholly in the virtual space. Andy Serkis, for example, could be wheelchair-bound or dead in 2035, and still get raves for his tree-swinging turn in Mid-Afternoon of the Planet of the Apes.

The catch is in the contract: all actors agree to never perform anywhere, in any capacity, for the rest of their natural lives. Facing few other career options, and dealing with her pre-teen son's (Kodi Smit-McPhee) costly degenerative disease, Wright signs on, and undergoes a day-long scanning session. A former editor named Christopher (Christopher B. Duncan) gives direction to the actress, as she stands in a light-lined sphere wearing a white unitard. The imaging system gets to work, copying the nuances of her laughter and the darker emotions Al draws out in a pinch. In effect, Miramount buys not only Wright's craft but also her soul.*

From here, the film jumps forward twenty years, and I'm hard pressed to even describe what happens in its second half. America's elite have gone scan-crazy, it seems, with two distinct and parallel realities vying for dominance. One is a funhouse-mirror 'Toon Town, packed with avatars of Hollywood royalty (and those wanting to look like Hollywood royalty). Realistic human bodies appear to be several evolutionary steps back: the vogue for scanned people is a cross between Al Hirschfeld caricatures and 1930's cartoons. The other world is a desolate, resource-starved realm of flash and blood, where millions pay the price for the upper class' escapism and vanity.

The cartoons are determined to keep evolving. Not content with merely allowing people to become other people, the Futurological Congress develops a way for scanned identities to be productized--consumable, reproducible goods for those with the means to pay for them. Wright takes offense to this, and winds up silenced by Jeff's jackbooted avatar. There's more time-jumping, more revolution; an almost love-interest voiced by Jon Hamm; and a trip back to the real world for a pensive, gray shuffle across the finish line.

Folman (adapting Stanislaw Lem's novel) offers up a heady, free-will version of The Matrix, complete with ideas that'll stick in your teeth and a wondrous style unlike anything you're likely to see. The problem with The Congress is that it is more philosophical exercise than plot-driven film. The premise is interesting and, dare I say, not as far-fetched as one might imagine. But the flawed and fascinating version of herself that Wright creates is undermined by the story's need for her to become a superhero.

As the Wachowski brothers proved, mind-expanding blockbusters are possible, but only if brains and brawn are equally important to the production. Upon entering this film's animated world, weirdness trumps story, and that's a big problem. Maybe Folman's thematic aim was to suspend forward motion as his characters indulged in their aimless, selfish, non-tangible universe. Though awesome in concept and animated flair, it's not very cinematic.

The film's great irony is that despite wonderful performances,** rich visuals, and a score that somehow manages to keep pace with the story's rollercoaster tonal shifts, The Congress feels too flat to recommend. Had Folman stuck with the relatable human drama of Wright's giving up her identity and reconnecting with her family and herself...well, that would've been an entirely different movie--and one I might enjoy watching.

*Similar to the big payday offered to futuristic hitmen in Looper

**Huston, in particular, makes a compelling and slimy cartoon devil.