“The Congress” is an offbeat juxtaposition of two different stories which do not work together well in one film. One is a sly satire on Hollywood business which also has a thought-provoking premise involved with the rapid development of current digital technology, and I liked its mix of humor and poignancy, while musing on what might be possible in the future of movie industry. The other one is a minding-bending animation story in which anything is virtually possible on the screen, and that is where the movie merely floats its balls above its ground without anything I can hold onto. There are some visually striking scenes to be admired, but the story loses focus as drifting around its animated hallucinations, and my mind remained confounded and unenthusiastic while not getting much satisfaction from it.
Its first part is about an actress struggling with her downhill career. In the opening scene, Robin Wright, who plays the fictional version of herself with a slight touch of humor, is listening to her agent Al(Harvey Keitel), and he is telling her a hard fact about her situation. There was a time when she could do anything as a new girl in the town, but she is past her prime now, and it has been getting harder for her to get good roles because Hollywood usually does not have much interest in old actresses.
And then there comes a good offer from Jeff(Danny Huston), a wily, smarmy executive of a powerful Hollywood movie company named “Miramount”(you probably know where its name comes from even if you are a casual moviegoer). In the exchange for a considerable sum of money, the company will own the copyright of her actress image, and it is going to use it as a digital actress for their future films. All she is required to do is 1) sign the contract, 2) let herself and her performances be digitally scanned for creating her avatar to be used, and 3) quit her acting career at least during the period stated in her contract.
Wright naturally feels uncomfortable about this deal, but she also sees that there is not any other good option for her career and her life. She is currently living with her two children in a remote place which was once a hangar for the nearby airport, and her dear son Aaron(Kodi Smit-McPhee) has a neurodegenerative disease which will deprive him of his eyesight and, possibly, other senses. We see him being diagnosed by Dr. Baker(Paul Giamatti) at one point, and the movie makes a nice homage to a certain scene from “2001: A Space Odyssey”(1968) while Aaron, who has been well aware of what is happening to him, is observing the conversation between his concerned mother and his kind doctor beyond soundproof glass.
She accepts Jeff’s offer with several conditions of her own(she understandably does not want her digital avatar to be used in porn, for instance), and then she immediately goes through her scanning job. Wearing a tight uniform, she enters a giant sphere structure equipped with many lights and cameras ready to scan everything from her body as well as her performance, but she is still not so sure about her choice, for this feels pretty much like her acting career being sucked by machine.
When she happens to be on the verge of a breakdown during this process, Al helps her through a sincere monologue from his heart, and she genuinely reacts to his words while showing the various range of emotions to be captured on the spot. As the movie watches and listens to him, Harvey Keitel, a great actor who was too good to appear in an abominable film called “The Last Godfather”(2010), makes this scene very poignant as a guy who has gone through lots of things for an actress he deeply cares about, and Wright, who is actually enjoying a big career turn in her real life thanks to the success of the ongoing TV series “House of Cards”, wonderfully responds to Keitel while deftly handling her character’s dynamic emotional state during that moment.
After that, the movie instantly goes forward to 20 years later. We see an older Wright driving her sports car, and she is going to some special place for meeting Jeff again for another deal. Her digital avatar has been used in some popular SF movie and other films, and now they are going to sell its chemical version to everyone who wants to be Robin Wright. Thanks to technological advance, some special drugs are developed to give people vivid alternative experience, and we see the effect right after when Wright drinks her potion. As her mind is being under its influence, the movie changes its mode from live action film to animation film, and the real world is turned into an animation wonderland full of broad, silly figures reminiscent of old Fleischer cartoons(One particular figure is not named in the movie during his brief appearance, but you can probably guess who he is while amused by that).
This is interesting to watch on the surface, but the movie keeps hopping along its confusing plot filled with corporation plot, assassination attempt, anti-technology movement, and many other things to be expected from your average dystopian SF story. The movie freely wields its animation style to create a number of good sights including New York city decorated with an anarchic environment-friendly style, but I began to lose my interest while being a little too confused and confounded to find a way to care about what was shown in the screen. The third act eventually gives something to hold for us, but that is too late, and I still have many questions about its futuristic world. I know anything is possible with imagination in SF or fantasy, but, without any solid ground for its imagination, nothing sticks much in this case.
The director/writer Arie Folman previously made “Waltz with Bashir”(2008), a singular work which was a compelling mixture of animation, documentary, and personal psychotherapy. I am not so satisfied with “The Congress”, which is based on Stanisław Lem’s SF novel “The Futurological Congress”, but it has good performances, and I sort of admire its odd, distinctive style. I think I will have to revisit it someday for possible further understanding, but, for now, you have my 2.5-star recommendation with caution.