While by nature I’m very weary of taking stranger’s advice on what movies to watch in theatres, I’m afraid I’ve been living a double standard and blindly following the Drafthouse Recommends series at Alamo. Not that it’s generally a bad thing. Don’t let this discourage you dear reader as I’m more than happy to watch whatever it is you suggest and review it – just don’t get upset if I don’t share your opinions. For instance when it comes to science fiction I can both love and appreciate something like Star Wars that’s full of action, adventure and light-saber battles, but also
I can praise the 1972 film Solaris that is completely opposite as it is more psychological and overly long and boring. Honest to god the scene at the beginning of Solaris is just Kris Kelvin staring at a leaf on a pond with Andrei Tarkovsky gradually zooming out the camera for what feels like 5 minutes. Speaking of Solaris and Sci-Fi dramas, let’s talk about The Congress!
This movie is dense, like…really dense. On one hand, it’s an eccentric and bold drama about the illusion of freewill, and on the other, it’s a highly metaphorical commentary on social trends and personal identity. I can’t say much about its director Ari Folman since I haven’t seen any of his work, but I will say that he’s extremely ambitious since this movie is basically a giant middle finger to Tinsel-town and a lot of the industry changes that have happened over the last few decades. The Congress stars Robin Wright (The Princess Bride, Forrest Gump) as a washed up version of herself that is offered one final contract that essentially gives Miramount studios, the fiction big bad movie studio, the exclusive rights to, well, Robin Wright. They scan her body, her personality, her emotions, and essentially all that is the aging actress into a computer to use as they see fit and crank out Robin Wright movies whenever they want. So for instance the aging beauty is subsequently turned into a badass sci-fi heroine that fights robots despite the real actress’s insistence that her avatar not star in science fiction films.
Naturally there is a catalyst for her accepting the offer since she initially has the common sense to refute her agent’s (Harvey Keitel) demands; her son has some rare disease that’s going to leave him deaf and blind. In the end, she accepts a large sum of money in exchange for her promise to not act again for the next 20 years or so. Paul Giamatti makes an appearance as the kid’s doctor and Danny Huston also shows up as the evil film executive guy.
Now you’re probably wondering why I made such a big deal about Solaris in the intro, well it’s not just because I love talking about my favorite sci-fi films, but it too was a film adaptation, like The Congress, of a book written by none other than the visionary Polish Author Stanislav Lem. Having never read the novel myself, I trust that Ari Folman at least captured the spirit of it when he wrote the adaptation to Lem’s The Futurological Congress. Now, what you’re probably not expecting, much like I wasn’t, is once the film has fast forwarded 20 years to when Wright’s contract is expiring, that the film would suddenly turn into an Acid-Trip.
Yes, the roughly 70 year old Robin Wright in the movie is invited to speak at The Futurological Congress and ingests some psychotropic drug that turns her world into a cartoon. No seriously, the movie is animated like an old Disney film for the next hour or so of the film. This is the part of the film that started to lose me, and I have to be careful of spoilers, but essentially the corporate fat-cats at Miramount (Love the portmanteau of Miramax and Paramount by the way) want Robin to advocate some new drug that allows you to become whoever you want. So for instance if you wanted to become Robin Wright you’d just drink her essence and become her (as a cartoon).
I apologize if the story isn’t readily easy to follow, but that’s the way it unfolds itself. Basically in the future people are free to take a drug that turns them all into cartoon characters at least in terms of their own perception and they’re ignorant to the fact that their real-world selves live a shitty and bleak existence. Robin spends most of the movie trying to find her son, her daughter joins some cartoon rebellion to overthrow the system, and the whole film I couldn’t help but think of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Like I said, it’s a trip.
I can’t say I liked this film, but I did find it extremely interesting. It’s incredibly inventive and ambitious, but I wonder if it isn’t a little too ambitious. It’s full of subtle humor that blends nicely with the depressed tone of the film, and you’ll find yourself having a few good laughs when you recognize famous characters and actors as their cartoon avatars are presented. As far as the whole ‘decadence of our times’ commentary goes, I couldn’t help but think of The Matrix,which is more or less concerned with the same themes as The Congress. Individuality and the illusion of freedom both play heavily into Robin Wrights trippy journey (also a good name for the film) as well as a slew of other metaphors that I will leave you to discover for yourself.
The Bottom Line:
It’s worth a watch just for the hour or so of animation as that bit is pretty interesting, though it’s jarring to switch between a psychedelic animated world and the bleakness of reality – though I believe that was Folman’s point. More than likely this will be a movie that become more of a cult film in a decade and you’ll get a lot of pretentious assholes that throw it into film discussions as a ‘landmark achievement in storytelling’. If you’ve ever taken a film studies class I’m talking about that asshole in the front row that uses ‘juxtaposition’ and ‘dichotomy’ in every other sentence. No one gives a fuck about what you think of Citizen Kane.
(it gets an extra half star because it has airships)