When it comes to independent films and major releases, animation is fairly underutilized medium. There are exceptions, but for the most part, it’s generally used for kid-centric stories or to paint a lush, if slightly more adult, world. That’s why movies like A Scanner Darkly and The Congress are so special. They use animation for drama and to express ideas that go beyond a few pretty shots. Both films shouldn’t be compared past that point, but they are both emotional, visual, and mental exercises – rides that you either go along with from the start or don’t.
If director Ari Folman’s The Congress grabs you from its first frame, then expect a rich science-fiction film packed with commentary, ideas, laughs, tears, and beauty.
Speaking of beauty, Robin Wright (played conveniently by Robin Wright) has lost it, at least according to some slimy agist studio executive we meet working at Miramount. She’s now 44 years old. That usually means for actresses their careers are winding down, but after years of “bad” choices and choosing family over work, Robin isn’t the big deal that she once was. The offers aren’t coming in, at least not the offers she’s interested in – she wouldn’t ever dare to take part in a science-fiction film.
Magically, that option of choice for actors is altered in the future of the film where actors are literally turned into puppets thanks to some fancy Hollywood hardware. They can sign themselves over to a studio for them to make shoddy movies with their image all within a computer. Robin, after hesitating, gives in to become one of the first actors to enlist, and she winds up becoming a key figure in this horrifying tomorrow world. After she does, her life becomes filled of more regret and pain.
Twenty years after that decision, Robin has entered a whole new world. Life imitates art, and in this future, that’s done to the extreme. You can have the option of becoming or (coming soon!) drinking a celebrity of your choice. Folman delves into celebrity obsession with a sharp and scary wit.
People are now using Robin’s body to escape their reality, not just her movies. Thanks to a groovy new chemical, citizens can see and be whatever they want. Halfway through the film our world becomes an animated playground where everything is how you choose to interpret it.
The Congress is very much about choices: the easy ones, the difficult ones, and the life-altering ones. What makes Folman’s sci-fi film go beyond some meta movie about Hollywood and celebrity obsession is that he applies that idea of choice to all aspects of life. This isn’t so much about an actor, but a sorrowful mother in search of her son, a meaningful career and more.
But all of the Hollywood system elements featured are excellent. We mostly see that side of the world in the live-action opening, which features a smarmy Danny Huston as the dismissive executive and a heartfelt performance by Harvey Keitel playing Robin’s committed agent. These segments are somewhat heightened and quirky, but they come from a genuinely emotional place, thanks to the real-life actor Robin Wright.
She shows no ego whatsoever taking on a role like this, one that some actors would sprint away from in a heartbeat. The Robin Wright we see in the movie has made a series of damaging career choices, but in reality, she’s making the interesting ones, choosing to work with the directorial likes of Ari Folman, David Fincher, Rebecca Miller, and Oren Moveman, taking on real creative risks.
Wright gives a performance filled with regret, pain, and love, and even when in the animation world, Wright’s heartbreaking vulnerability stays intact. As beautiful as Folman’s film becomes in the trippy, animated half of the film, it thrives because of the work Wright, Keitel, Huston, and Jon Hamm (playing a saddening role I won’t spoil) do. All the fully-fleshed out ideas, philosophies, and characters are in place, but the cast does a heck of a job of adding more life to the already lively world Folman has created.
The Congress is a true piece of beauty. As a performance piece, spectacle, drama, comedy, heady sci-fi, and cautionary tale, it’s an across the board success. All of these ingredients produce a mesmerizing experience, showing us a future we’ve never seen put on film before.
The Upside: Robin Wright’s most accomplished work in recent years; a surprisingly powerful scene from Harvey Keitel; an original blend of the familiar and new; gorgeous, stylish, and personal animation; epic and yet intimate; an appropriately bittersweet score by Max Richter; that ending
The Downside: I had to watch it on a computer screen.
On The Side: The film was inspired by “The Futurological Congress” by Stanislaw Lem.
Editor’s Note: This review originally ran as part of our Fantastic Fest coverage. We re-run it now because it’s in theaters this weekend.