Although she’s worked steadily over the years, Robin Wright’s career has taken a remarkable turn with her brilliant portrayal of Washington’s own Lady Macbeth, Claire Underwood, in the Netflix series House of Cards. She’s followed that up this year with a sharp supporting part in the excellent A Most Wanted Man and now the lead in writer/director Ari Folman’s weird, formally experimental live-action/animation hybrid, The Congress. And Folman is lucky to have her since Wright is always magnetic to watch even when his sci-fi take on memory, identity, and the metaphysics of virtual life doesn’t quite hold together.
Based loosely on a novel (The Futurological Congress) by Polish sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem, The Congress stars Wright as Robin Wright, an aging actress whose hits are long behind her, and whose questionable personal and professional choices have brought her career to a standstill (in real life, Wright did turn down roles in films like The Firm and Jurassic Park after breaking out in The Princess Bride). Danny Huston is at his most oily as the head of Miramount Studios – which appears to be the last film conglomerate in the world – who makes Wright an offer: let the studio digitize her image and use it in movies and other media going forward, all for a hefty sum of money and the promise that she never act again as a “real” person. The time of the flesh-and-blood actor is over – all the studio needs is her digital copy, made 10 years younger of course.
With few other prospects and the opportunity to spend time with her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is slowly going blind and deaf, Wright accepts. The film then flashes forward 20 years, when Wright is the guest of honor at the Futurist Congress, a gathering sponsored by Miramount at a lavish resort where its scanning technology now allows anyone to create their own avatar and adopt any persona they want. To enter the resort where the Congress takes place, one must take a drug and enter the virtual world that Miramount has created. That’s when Folman’s movie leaves live-action behind for most of the rest of its running time and plunges into animation.
The effect is jarring – and throws the movie off course as the real Wright becomes a cartoon version of herself in a dazzling landscape that is part Yellow Submarine and part Max Fleischer. But the ideas put forward in the movie’s first third are either semi-abandoned or confusingly merged into a larger meditation on society’s abandonment of real life (“truth,” as it’s called later on) for a virtual existence where anything is possible. Folman’s themes are ambitious but his handling of them is awkward. The already muddled middle section of the film gets overloaded with hallucinations within hallucinations and a subplot about a rebellion against Miramount, which doesn’t amount to anything except a means to propel Wright further into the future.
That final journey turns out to be a grim one, as Wright returns to a “real” world that has changed drastically. It’s also the most moving part of the film, but it could have been that much more emotionally devastating if we weren’t picking up plot threads left behind an hour earlier when the movie veered off into Candyland.
Wright is sensational when we can see her, and I’d like to think that her flatter line readings when she’s a cartoon are meant on purpose — implying that the virtual world offers surface thrills while muting real emotions. Harvey Keitel and Paul Giamatti appear in a handful of scenes to offer mostly exposition, although Keitel’s coaching of Wright during her scanning session makes for a scene that is both vulnerable and mournful, while Giamatti’s humane doctor also adds warmth to the proceedings. Jon Hamm fares less successfully as an animated technician who has worshiped Wright from afar for years but really only serves to explain what the hell is going on to her and us.
The movie is a pleasure to look at from start to finish and parts of it do hint at a believably dystopian future, with Max Richter’s score providing a backdrop that’s both eerie and poignant. Folman, whose previous film Waltz with Bashir was an unprecedented mix of documentary and animation, shows plenty of ambition here both in his filmmaking technique and his themes: it’s clear that The Congress is an elegy for the traditional notion of film itself as well as our concept of what it means to be an individual, both of which are in a slow death spiral. It’s just a shame that Folman’s movie itself never coheres into something to make us think forcefully about that loss.
The Congress is out in theaters Friday and available now via VOD.