Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: The Congress

Image courtesy of Drafthouse Films.
Ari Folman's sci-fi satire "The Congress" has such a unique premise that it's unfortunate when the film, which is the director's first since his controversial "Waltz with Bashir," eventually falls apart a little toward its finale.

The picture, which begins as a live action Hollywood drama before taking a strange turn into futuristic animated territory, presents an acerbic view of the current state of the movie business and acts as a warning to a world that has become consumed with technology.

At the film's beginning, Robin Wright plays a version of herself known as Robin and the character combines actual moments from the actress's career - such as starring in "The Princess Bride" and "Forrest Gump" - with a storyline I assume is fictional in which Wright has burned all her bridges in Hollywood - which we know not to be true due to her popping up in such recent movies as "A Most Wanted Man" and her Emmy nominated work in "House of Cards" - by turning down numerous roles and taking long periods of time off from acting to tend to her two children, a rebellious teenager and a younger son who is slowly going blind and deaf.

Robin meets with a sleazy studio executive (Danny Huston), who offers her a strange "contract" that he claims will be the future of filmmaking. All actors, he tells her, will soon be obsolete as Hollywood's new cost-cutting method of making movies involves scanning a thespian's "image" (their features, expressions and bodies) and using them as they please via digital technology to populate thousands of movies for generations to come. In other words, their acting will no longer be necessary.

Folman uses these ideas not only to criticize the direction in which our culture is heading - that is, stories and faces being replaced by digitally created images - but also to lambast Hollywood's lack of use for women of a certain age. Robin is told by Huston's executive that she is past her prime and her digitally enhanced "image" will make her appear as if she were 34 years old again. So far, so good.

Then, the film leaps 20 years into the future and, after that, (possibly) another several decades or so to a time when people no longer live out their bleak existences on a crumbling Earth, but rather exist in animated dreams straight out of "Vanilla Sky" where they can be whomever they choose.

Robin attends a press junket with the International Congress, a virtual reality conference where the studio who bought Wright's image will announce that future audiences will literally be able to eat and drink the actress's essence, which Huston's character announces as the future of virtual entertainment. But chaos breaks out during the conference and a revolution is staged. Robin is saved by a man (Jon Hamm, animated), with whom she eventually becomes romantically involved.

And then... well, I can't quite say. Robin attempts to break out of her animated existence and track down her son with the help of a doctor (Paul Giamatti, not animated), who once tended to him. The second half of the film is often visually stunning, but Folman begins to lose track of the narrative and his ideas don't quite cohere. "The Congress" is a provocative film and a unique take on humanity's becoming enslaved to a virtual reality, although last year's "Her" took a more pointed view on the matter.

As is evidenced by his powerful "Waltz with Bashir" and this latest picture, Folman does not shy away from controversial or thought provoking material. His latest movie may not always work, but you can't fault him for a lack of ambition.

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