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Congress, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/18/14 22:39:00

"Highly animated, though not as much as it could be."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 16: "The Congress" divides fairly naturally into three or four parts, and the Futurological Congress which gives the film is name (and was presumably much more central to Stanislas Lem's original novel) is probably the least interesting despite having the most going on. One almost wonders why filmmaker Ari Folman didn't just make a movie with everything else and cite Lem as an inspiration, because that still leaves a heck of a smart, unusual science fiction film.

Actress Robin Wright was certainly not the protagonist of Lem's book, after all, though she fills that role here, not getting many parts twenty-five years after The Princess Bride but still kind of horrified when her agent (Harvey Keitel) delivers Hollywood's latest (and last) offer: They want to digitize her, making everything from her physical features to acting style their intellectual property, leaving any future performance she ever gives copyright infringement. Well, at least for twenty years, when she returns to Miramount Studios to negotiate a new deal and speak at the Futurological Congress.

Things go down at the Congress that are meant to be confusing - where the first and last parts of the movie are about Robin negotiating a strange new world, the middle has her spending much of her time as a witness to events that make the world even stranger. I'm not sure how chaotic Folman actually wanted it to be, because in a way it doesn't fit (it's the only time that Robin is far enough ahead of the audience that she doesn't need to discover things with us). Or perhaps this is the point, as Folman is covering humanity's anxieties toward the rapidly digitizing world: That computers might replace the job of even creative people and that electronic interaction will replace direct "real" human contact are easy to list and depict, but the Singularity where the rate of discovery and societal evolution excesses the human ability to process it is difficult to present by definition.

Things get crazy visually there, too; the Miramount hotel in Las Vegas is a "restricted cartoon zone", where mandatory pharmaceuticals enable everybody to see each other's animated avatars and environments, and it's a trip. Although it might make more sense to have detailed 3D CGI characters and creatures, Folman takes "cartoon" to heart and goes goes with a style mostly influenced by Fleischer, Betty Boop, and Bosko cartoons of the 1930s, albeit with modern coloring. It's a ton of fun, with scenes filled with a fanciful riot of characters and there always being something nifty to pick out of the background. It's not just a visual gimmick for its own sake, though; it lets Folman contrast Robin's avatar that doesn't hide her age with the Hollywood grotesqueries that surround her. It also gives the characters the chance to do some crazy emoting, and even if some of the motivations for what's going on in the middle aren't clear, the action itself is often stunning.

The live-action segments are not bad either - Folman chooses and creates memorable places there too, and makes sure that even when the real world is strange in its own way, it has an extra immediacy to it. He also gets some great work from the real-life Robin Wright - it may seem as though this would be the easiest possible part for her to play, especially since Folman doesn't ask her to play some weird funhouse-mirror version of herself, but Robin is in unusual enough situations that Ms. Wright is discovering interesting takes on them. It is, admittedly, a bit odd to see her playing Robin Wright while Harvey Keitel and Paul Giamatti are playing folks who are not Harvey Keitel and Paul Giamatti (although they're both pretty good). The voice acting isn't bad, although Jon Hamm, who has the biggest voice-only role as the animator who has been working on "Robin Wright" for years, doesn't seem particularly suited to this sort of work, as his voice isn't particularly distinctive or emotive.

Wright's performance helps ground the movie, which isn't necessarily always a good thing; it sometimes keeps the film from achieving the broad but pointed satire that Lem's novels are known for, while spending so much time on Wright worrying about her son pulls the focus away from the bigger sci-fi ideas. It's no bad thing to make your science fiction story something that people can identify with, but you don't need digital thespians, cryonic suspension, and crazy animated illusions to tell that story.

Fortunately, "The Congress" does have the crazy visuals and nifty ideas to go with its story. I might like to have seen Folman go all-in on the science fiction and satire, but he and his colleagues do a whole lot well here, certainly making the sort of movie you don't see every day and making it pretty well.

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