Ari Folman’s “The Congress” begins well enough, with the sheer physical presence of Robin Wright center screen, tears popping from her eyes. The actress, who in real life has aged gracefully into strength – or maybe it’s just bitterness — plays “Robin Wright,” an aging actress who has made many “lousy choices.” We know this from her agent, played with sweet understatement by Harvey Keitel, who spares nothing and no one, including the “lousy men” Wright has chosen. Is that one of the movie’s many in-jokes?
Sitting in the home she shares with her two teenagers, a renovated airplane hanger located right next to an airport in the California desert, Keitel goes on to inform her that the studio, the nicely named Miramount, wants to discuss a new contract; it’s obvious something is up but he doesn’t know what exactly. The what is the crux of the film, as explained by Jeff Green (Danny Huston), an unctuous numbers-cruncher turned studio chief. You know the type, or certainly Huston does, since he channels the smarmy self-pleasure with such elan. Or is that just Danny Huston? (See “Hitchcock.”)
They go back a long time, Green and Wright, but he now finds himself in the difficult position, he says with barely contained MBA glee, of proffering Wright her last contract. She is, what, 45 or 48 or 50 and her usefulness to the studio is pretty much over. The world and the industry have changed; actual human actors are so 1990s. Wright’s image, her body, her mind, all of her will be scanned for perennial use, while she can play golf for the next two decades – if she signs. At first, of course, Wright refuses, but does she really have another choice?
Eventually she caves and goes in for her scanning appointment, which takes place in a large geodesic dome studded with lights and cameras to record every move and emotion. After a mini freakout during which Wright threatens to walk out – yet another lousy choice — Keitel talks her down with a long story about how he became an agent at the age of ten, causing Wright to laugh and emote for the cameras. It’s pretty cheesy, but at least it’s on the weird/interesting side of cheesy. Then the animation kicks in, and just when and where you think things should get really interesting in a film from the director of “Waltz for Bashir,” they don’t. Not exactly.
To be clear, almost the entire rest of the film is animated. Fast forward the 20 years of Wright’s contract: It’s time to re-up, perhaps, and she’s been invited into “The Animation Zone” to attend and speak at a futuristic convention called the Futurological Congress, taking place in a huge resort hotel. It is sort of a Comic-Con gone wild, a world in which anyone can and does deal with their lousy choices by becoming a celebrity, temporarily, by inhaling a chemical from of an amulet. Break and sniff: Clint Eastwood or Elvis or whoever you want to be. Indeed, the hotel is full of big names of every stripe and age, including, naturally, several Robin Wrights, the scanned star of the now wildly popular “Rebel Robot Robin” franchise.
This provides one of the film’s small pleasures, spotting a cubist-looking Picasso, Yoko Ono, Frida Kahlo, Mohammad Ali, Jesus, Naomi Campbell, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra. There’s also a funny Tom Cruise character with a never-ending gleam who really seems to be Tom Cruise rather than a hallucination or transmigration or whatever you call it. (In the funniest moment of the Q&A afterwards, someone asked Folman if he had to get permission from Cruise and he replied, “Did you see Tom Cruise in the film? I didn’t. I’m serious, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And yet the actor who voices “Tom Cruise” gets a credit on IMDB.)
There also seem to be references to different animation histories, from the Fleischer Bros (Betty Boop) to Dr. Seuss, Ralph Bakshi and “Futurama,” as well as to such movies as “Dr. Strangelove,” with Wright riding the bomb a la Slim Pickens. And that says a lot about “Congress:” It’s a big ambitious mashup of ideas and styles. But for the most part it leaves its audience befuddled rather than bedazzled.
There isn’t much of a point trying to further describe the plot, which becomes more and more difficult to parse and/or remember. Wright makes a speech with integrity that doesn’t go down well and is hauled off stage by tough guys. An assassin shoots the main dude. Then Wright meets her animator, a mellow guy named Dylan Truliner who walks like Adrian Brody and talks like Don Draper (Jon Hamm is his voice), and who has loved her these past 20 years. Truliner has a pill he’s been saving that will release the taker back to the other world – like the Nazis cyanide pills hidden inside their teeth. Wright asks for it so that she can find her kids, or at least her son Aaron, who has a degenerative disease. She takes the pill, and leaves. Or something like that. Then she sees Paul Giamatti again. Did I mention Paul Giamatti? He plays Aaron’s doctor, Aaron who has a degenerative disease, and is obsessed with the Wright Brothers and with flying a kite into a passenger jet. Giamatti has a very large beard, and you will have a large question mark in your mind wondering why he took this small role. Like the rest of the project, it must have looked good on paper.
The film is based on Stanislaw Lem’s “The Futurological Congress,” which Folman read as a teenager. In the Q&A after the screening, the director said that he felt lucky that he could adapt one of his heroes. But he also sounded weary, like a man who knew he had bitten off more than it turned out he could chew. Making the film was an arduous 4-year journey, he said, requiring six animation studios in six European investor countries. Folman and his production designer David Polonsky had tried to go with the cutout animation that made “Waltz for Bashir” so memorable but “basically it was a nightmare.” They switched to classical animation, he said, with which they had no experience, and there were problems. “The craftsmanship is tough as hell. You have to be either stupid or brave to do it, and probably both.”
It seems Folman and Polonsky were a little of both. Their film is exuberant and funny at times, and not without its visual wonders, but it gets lost in its excesses. And if there are bigger ideas at play, they remain obscured. “The Congress” has the feel of a project the makers felt would be a work of some genius. What it is is overambitious.