Mark Reviews Movies

The Congress


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ari Folman

Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Danny Huston, Sami Gayle, Paul Giamatti, the voice of Jon Hamm

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 2:02

Release Date: 8/29/14 (limited); 9/5/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 4, 2014

The Congress is a bit ahead of itself as to the state of Hollywood, but it is science fiction. As such, we can forgive it a little bit of forward-thinking. In the film's present, actors are on the verge of irrelevance. Motion-capture technology has reached a point where a digital facsimile of a performer is nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. The only tell in the programming is a noticeable, spasmodic tic of the eyelid. It's quite funny during the sex scenes, an actress' agent says, trying to convince her that the best thing for her career is to go through the scanning process herself. The only way to save her career is to end it—to leave the choice of roles her digital double will play to the wills of studio executives and to leave the actual acting to the wizardry of other artists.

According to the president of the studio that wants to own the actress' likeness, the technology will be obsolete in 20 years. Writer/director Ari Folman's film goes even further in the prophecy. It argues that movies themselves will be on the verge of irrelevance in 20 years, and then it goes even further in its dire forecast. If the actors go, it's only a matter of time before the screenwriters, the directors, the cinematographers, and studio executives themselves are no longer needed. If the system that produces escapist entertainments and empathetic works of art falls, what fills the void?

The film answers the question, although it is important to note that the film's predicted collapse of the movies is a result of the answer to that question. Think of it as evolution. Technology shows what an actor could do without the restraints of the performer's personal choices, so someone finds a way to capture the essence of what an actor is and writes it into lines of code. The movies show us what the world could be, so someone finds a way to capture the essence of the promise of the movies—an escape from the everyday tedium and the existential dread—and puts it in a bottle for mass consumption.

There is, admittedly, a huge chasm between these ideas. The film is not just ahead of itself about the state of filmmaking; it is also simply ahead of itself. In the first act, Folman presents one problem, and the second act jumps far into new territory—leaping in time, creating an entirely new conflict, and even changing the medium of the film's storytelling. It makes us wonder why the first act even exists here.

The opening chapter concerns Robin Wright, playing herself as an actress who is past her prime. She has gained a reputation for being difficult to work with—backing out of projects at the last minute. Her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) has one last offer from Miramount. The name suggests a corporate merger as the first step toward a global conglomerate that, in the film's future, is the cause of and solution to all of the world's problems.

The studio's president (Danny Huston) wants to scan Robin, make an eternally 35-year-old avatar, and choose the movies "Robin Wright" will make. Contractually, Robin will not be able to act ever again. With a son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) with a degenerative medical condition that will make him deaf and blind and a daughter (Sami Gayle) to care for, Robin really has no choice. The act concludes with the scanning process, and there's something disturbing in the manipulative way the technician—with Al's help—gets the emotional output he needs.

What follows is a series of increasingly daring moves on Folman's part. The story moves forward 20 years in time, and Robin is on her way to the annual Futurist Congress. Along the way, the film shifts to animation (The assembly takes place in the Animated Zone). While there, Robin is confronted with surreal scenes of "Robin Wright" giving interviews about her latest movie, watches as people around her transform from Max Flesicher-style people into Al Hirschfled-inspired caricatures of famous figures, undergoes a string of hallucinations, and is caught in the crossfire between Miramount's security forces and a revolutionary group. She's guided through the warzone by Dylan Truliner (voice of Jon Hamm), the man who was in charge of animating "Robin Wright" and, over the course of his work, fell in love with Robin, "Robin," or both.

The real question here is how much of this is real—an announcement of and fight against corporate redefinition of what life is—and how much of it is imagined—the fears of an actress who no longer has a place in the world. Folman's illustrating of this world (This section comes from Stanislaw Lem's novel The Futurological Congress) is an invigorating, beautiful jumble of dreams and nightmares. A field becomes a rainbow-colored sea where whales and ships surround Robin's car, and Robin's time alone in her hotel room becomes a raid by police, which leads to a public execution. At some point, the story shifts again—maybe 70 years but maybe less—and characters fly over vast green fields that envelop them in flowering vines upon landing.

Folman's screenplay is mostly expository (We need a lot of explanation for what's happening on screen), but it also possesses enough philosophical heft to back up its sense of visual freedom. The film begins a stinging critique of Hollywood's less admirable qualities—ageism, belief in product over creativity, dismissal of those whose use has been perceived to be exhausted. It becomes a lament for humanity's inability to deal with the hardships of life and the world—seeking false freedom through chemical tyranny. The Congress may not fill the gap between these stories, yet the film's bold vision overcomes its rough-and-tumble ideological connections.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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