science fiction master Stanislaw Lem deftly satirized Soviet utopianism in The Futurological Congress. For his
modernized riff, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman uses Hollywood as the new evil
empire. It is a smooth substitution. In the very near future, the movie
business will take exploitation to even greater technological heights, as Robin
Wright learns first-hand when she plays herself in Folman’s The Congress (trailer here), which opens this
Friday in New York.
novel may have provided the seed of inspiration, but you not find his well
traveled hero Ijon Tichy. Instead, Wright will attend the conference in his
stead, but first we will witness the final days of her acting career. Despite
her early success in hits like The
Princess Bride, Folman’s Wright turned out to be difficult to work with, frequently
dropping out of high profile roles at the last minute. While she always claimed
it was for the sake of her ailing son Aaron, her frustrated agent really knows
it is fear and a lack of confidence that sabotaged her career.
Miramount has a final offer to make. For a lump sum payment, they will digitize
Wright and program her into all the hit movies she was never shrewd enough to
accept. Evidently, this is the way the business is going, so she reluctantly
accepts. Twenty years later, she is the biggest star in the business, but
nobody recognizes the real Wright. Accepting an invitation to speak at
Miramount’s Futurological Congress, Wright plans to challenge their
questionable ethical priorities from the podium. However, to get there, she
must travel into Miramount’s animated city of avatars. Unfortunately, little things
like the nature of time and reality will complicate her plan.
the first fifty minutes of live action could have easily been condensed. In
fact, by the time the film finally switches over into animation, Folman seems
so eager to go off on a fantastical romp he never fully establishes the rules
and boundaries of his chemically induced world of cartoon avatars. Still, it all
looks spectacularly trippy.
Folman’s Congress is a bit of a
narrative mess and it lacks Lem’s subversive bite, but it is fully stocked with
fascinating ideas and surprisingly effective performances. In one of many intriguing
side-plots, Folman puts a Matrix-like
spin of Otto Preminger’s Laura when
Dylan Truliner confesses to Wright he fell in love with her while working as
the animator manipulating her digital image.
Al the agent, Harvey Keitel delivers a monologue end all monologues, while Paul
Giamatti (who could have advised Wright on playing a meta-meta version of
herself, having done something similar in Cold Souls) adeptly brings some stabilizing sensitivity and dignity to the film
as Aaron’s kindly Dr. Baker. Whether as an animated avatar or in the flesh,
Danny Huston also makes a dynamite villain as Miramount (great name) studio boss
Most importantly, The Congress’ animation is wildly cool and colorful, with enough
thinly disguised cameos and visual quotes to reward dozens of repeat viewings.
In contrast, the Wright family drama gets tiresome the first time through,
especially when it comes to poor, pitiful Aaron, whose bland personality seems
to be degenerating along with his sight and hearing. Nevertheless, Folman puts
so much crazy ambition up on the screen, it more than compensates for the
occasional lapse into Lifetime melodrama. Recommended for fans of cult science
fiction and animation, as well as Lem readers who enjoy being scandalized, The Congress opens this Friday (9/5) in
New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.
Labels: Animated films, Ari Folman, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Robin Wright, Sci-Fi films, Stanislaw Lem