The received wisdom rap against Robin Wright — which I first recall seeing in one of those bloviating columns by know-it-all screenwriter William Goldman – is that this stunningly beautiful and hugely talented actress could have been one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but she just didn’t want it badly enough. Hollywood types often have trouble imagining how anyone could possibly have any other interests outside their insular industry, so Wright was pooh-poohed around town for bowing out of sure-fire blockbusters like Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and The Firm to raise a family – decisions that, in retrospect, look less like career suicide and more like decent human priorities, not to mention good taste.
Wright’s difficult reputation is the launching point of writer-director Ari Folman’s The Congress, a free-flowing, wackadoo meditation on stardom, entertainment, identity, illusions, ageism, technology, the life and work of Robin Wright, chemical dependency, kites, flowers and whatever else seems to have crossed the filmmaker’s mind at any given moment. A lot of the time, The Congress feels like instead of a screenplay, Folman’s riffing on a stack of index cards with heavy-duty themes scrawled in magic marker that fell on the floor and were scattered into random order.
And then about halfway through, it becomes an animated adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem book. Yeah, there’s a lot going on here.
We begin in something resembling the present day, with Wright playing a down-on-her-luck, slightly exaggerated version of herself, berated by her long-suffering agent (Harvey Keitel) for refusing to appear in rom-coms, sci-fi franchise pictures, or comic book adaptations. But there’s a new offer on the table from the cheekily named Miramount Studios.
The film industry is going full-tilt digital, and a lip-smackingly scummy studio executive (Danny Huston, of course) wants to scan Wright’s facial expressions to create a photo-realistic animated avatar he can Svengali into the first computer-generated superstar. (Now’s when everyone who saw Pacino in S1m0ne lets out a groan of unwelcome recognition.) Half a day’s emoting in a motion-capture chamber and Robin Wright will never have to set foot on a movie set again; she can stay home with her family while finally becoming the massive movie star folks like William Goldman always thought she should have been in the first place. She’ll be Princess Buttercup forever.
At least in the first act, The Congress speaks to a lot of current Hollywood anxieties. What used to be called “star power” has cratered as the film business has quite exasperatingly become centered around brands and digital spectacle. Ones and zeros are taking over, and there’s no place for a middle-aged actress like Robin Wright in the movies anymore (notice how she’s winning Emmys these days instead of Oscars). Folman’s often cloddish dialogue speaks the truth, however inelegantly.
This lumpy setup raises so many interesting questions, I wish Folman didn’t feel a need to stack the deck by saddling fictional Wright with a fictional son (played by a mewling Kodi Smit-McPhee) who isn’t just going blind but also deaf. In case that lily wasn’t gilded enough for you already, he also likes to fly kites into the paths of oncoming airplanes. Still, this leads to a humdinger of a scene in which the actress stands alone being scanned by hundreds of flashing digital cameras inside a gargantuan neon Epcot sphere, attempting to emote according to a technician’s dull prompts. Realizing it’s not working, Keitel sidles up to the mic and spins an anecdote that starts out funny before becoming something else altogether.
The play of emotions across Wright’s face is riveting, and what a pleasure it is to watch Harvey Keitel — that great rumpled bulldog in winter — sinking his teeth into a longform monologue again. All the more impressive for being so poorly scripted, the scene writes a check the movie can’t cash, as immediately after that is when The Congress goes nuts.
Abruptly jumping ahead 20 years, we’ve suddenly got Robin Wright’s story awkwardly shoehorned into Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, and also, by the way, now the movie is a cartoon.
Summoned to renew her contract in a ToonTown Mecca where everybody huffs ampules that turn them into animated avatars, Wright is swallowed up by groovy psychedelic Peter Max visuals as Folman tosses about some admittedly fascinating ideas regarding the nature of escapism. Technology has finally advanced to such a place where people don’t have to just watch movie stars anymore – they can now *be* them, however temporarily. So watch out for all those John Waynes, Marilyn Monroes, and Elvis Presleys loitering around the hotel lobby.
It’s all seriously trippy and quickly tiresome, as there’s no longer any dramatic through-line and scenes simply consist of characters leading Wright by the hand around this brightly-colored fantasy landscape explaining the increasingly arbitrary rules of our brave new world. There’s a brief dalliance with an animated animator who looks like a shopping mall artist’s caricature of Adrien Brody but is voiced (quite disastrously) by Jon Hamm. Let’s just say that Don Draper’s dulcet tones aren’t a good match for manic neediness.
It was probably sometime around the point when Wright and Hamm’s animated avatars flap their arms like wings and fly around before fucking in a bed of hentai flowers while Wright croons Dylan’s “Forever Young” on the soundtrack that I feared The Congress was never going to end. The film keeps lurching forward in time so everybody has to keep droning on about how all this Yellow Submarine shit works over again, with the thin wisps of story and character receding ever further in the rearview.
There was a similarly shapeless quality to Folman’s previous picture, the animated documentary Waltz With Bashir. But in that case, the slippery, elusive nature of the storytelling matched Folman’s attempts to come to terms with the atrocities he witnessed in Lebanon; to wrestle with them until they were cathartically purged through art. The discursive jumble of The Congress doesn’t feel like PTSD, it just feels like a guy who can’t figure out what story he wants to tell so he’s going to throw in everything including the kitchen sink.
Despite one kicker of a punchline imported from Lem’s novel, the sensory overload and thematic bludgeoning of The Congress reach a point of deadening, diminishing returns. It makes you long for the simple analog pleasures movies can provide — like watching Robin Wright’s face while Harvey Keitel tells her a story. Maybe that’s the whole point?