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Ambition markedly outstrips achievement in The Congress, a visionary piece of speculative fiction that drops the ball after a fine set-up. Director Ari Folman follows his breakthrough 2008 feature Waltz With Bashir with a different style of animation applied not to a historical war story but to a look at an alternative future based on transfigured real people. Initial viewer curiosity gives way to impatience and finally ennui in the film’s second half, spelling lukewarm commercial prospects for this commendable but shortfalling exploratory drama.
Based on the 1971 novel The Futurological Congress by the late, prolific Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem, who also authored Solaris, this is a venturesome and provocative piece with a great deal on its mind. At its most reductive core, it concerns show business and actors and how the shelf-life of performers could, in an insidious but not at all unimaginable way, be made unlimited. Audiences interested in the future of entertainment and Hollywood dwellers above all will find the first 55 minutes, the film’s good part, irresistibly intriguing.
In a striking opening, veteran agent Al (Harvey Keitel) upbraids his longtime client Robin Wright (playing herself) for making nothing but “lousy choices, lousy movies, lousy men.” She also made two smart, smartass kids, punky, tomboyish daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) and sensitive, fiercely intelligent son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is suffering the gradual loss of key senses, especially hearing.
Now in her mid-40s, Robin gets what she’s told will be her final job offer, to become a “scanned actress” so that all of her emotions, movements and characteristics will become technologically preserved and therefore available for all time. Miramount executive Jeff (Danny Huston) assures her that, this way, she’ll be “young forever,” even if her career choices and “performances” will be created by computer technicians rather than by herself.
After posing many plausible objections, Robin finally submits to the scanning process, which takes place in a room-sized geodesic dome arrayed with tubes and white lights. But the sequence is made memorable not by technology but a terrific monologue delivered by Keitel, who opens up a wide range of emotions in Robin by relating a wonderful story about how his character’s future as an agent was signaled by an event in the Bronx when he was ten.
The film’s first half is full of pregnant ideas about how rapidly changing technology could effect entertainment, creativity, corporate control, free will, selling out, identity, medicine and other endeavors. Folman’s live-action direction is confident and attractive and if the film had continued in the same vein to follow up on the ramifications of Robin’s decision in the “real” recognizable world, it might have stood a chance of being more satisfying.
But midway through and with a jump of 20 years, we enter the “animation zone,” in which “Robin,” now a white-haired drawn figure, attends a Futurist Congress populated by nothing but other animated characters, some of them famous (John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Che, Picasso, Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson are among the many recognizable faces) and some transformed into animalistic creatures that would be right at home in any animated film.
Within minutes, the air gets sucked out of the film in a palpable way, as a conventional divide is set up between these fantasy lives (“Robin” is the star of a popular action series called Rebel Robot Robin) and the real lives left behind. Jettisoning a connection to anything concrete, Folman, who started his career in documentaries, loses his narrative moorings, allowing The Congress to hop, skip and jump between familiar visions of totalitarian rule, opiated masses and insulated, technology-controlled lives, and movie references that include The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon.
Abandoning the “cut-out” style that was so striking in Waltz With Bashir, Folman here harks back to earlier, more traditional animation forms that perhaps aspire to the 1930s Fleischer model but, in the event, more closely resemble the psychedelic aspects of “Yellow Submarine” and the work of Richard Williams. Plants and flowers grow out of buildings, shapes flow and morph from one configuration to another, none of it particularly attractive or enchanting. The themes and concerns that set the film’s agenda early on are still present but recede, just as Robin’s kids take a back seat to the undynamic character of the animator (Jon Hamm) who has been assigned to “Robin” for two decades and has, of course, fallen in love with her.
Despite the second-half fizzle, it’s easy to admire the enterprising nature with which Wright, who also co-produced, jumped into such an adventurous project, which seriously confronts the career parameters faced, especially, by beautiful actresses. Keitel is the best he’s been in quite a while, Huston has a grand time representing the next generation of studio bosses and Smit-McPhee and Gayle are captivating as the kids.
Shot in California and Germany, the film has a strong look in the live-action scenes. Max Richter’s score is another solid asset.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production: Bridgit Folman Film Gang, Pandora Film, Opus Film, Paul Thiltges Distribution
Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Danny Huston, Sami Gayle, MS-D, Paul Giamatti
Director: Ari Folman
Screenwriter: Ari Folman, based on “The Futurological Congress” by Stanislaw Lem
Producers: RB, Ari Folman, Robin Wright
Director of photography: Michal Englert
Animation: Yoni Goodman
Production designer: David Polonsky
Costume designer: Mandi Line
Editor: Nili Feller
Music: Max Richter
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