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'The Congress': A case of greatness botched

Director Ari Folman's new film features Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel and a brilliant premise. But 45 minutes in, it all goes to hell.
The Congress

The Congress

The Congress begins with a tantalizing set-up. Robin Wright plays herself, or at least a once famous actress named Robin Wright who starred inThe Princess Bride and Forrest Gump. She is living with her teenage daughter and younger son in a sprawling desert compound next to an airfield. She is past her acting prime, or so her agent (played with surprising compassion by a noticeably aging Harvey Keitel) tells her.

She has walked out on too many contracts and made too many career-killing decisions. When he informs her that a major studio (called, sneakily, Miramount) wants to digitally clone her body, her expressions and even her personality on the condition she never acts in anything, anywhere, ever again, she understandably refuses. But her son suffers from a rare syndrome, one with dire and expensive consequences. Reluctantly, she takes the money.

It’s a fascinating premise, and as directed by Ari Folman, a thoroughly mesmerizing one. Filmed with a startling grip on scraps of visual shorthand that convey setting and tone in striking, emotionally fraught imagery, you might allow yourself to think you’re watching the most compelling and brilliantly directed film of the year. But you’d be so wrong.

The first 45 minutes of this frustrating movie soar on its performances as well as its exquisitely wrought compositions. Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road, Let Me In), brings his usual haunting, heartbreaking presence to the role of Wright’s son; Paul Giamatti is an avuncular medical specialist; Danny Huston is on hand in one of his custom-fit roles as a bureaucratic yes man dripping with lassitude and ironic detachment; Wright is powerfully direct; and Keitel is amazing. The final scene of the first half of this film features a tour de force monologue from Keitel, essentially willing a stream-of-consciousness performance from Wright while she undergoes the digital process. It’s a stunning sequence. And then…and then…

The Congress abruptly jumps ahead 20 years. What? Does that mean Smit-McPhee is no longer the heartbreaking troubled son and Keitel is probably dead? While you’re trying to wrap your head around this sudden narrative lurch, there is another surprise. Wright is now 66 years old and driving through the desert in a convertible, when she arrives at a gate and is told by the guard she is about to enter an “animation zone.” At this point you will want to tighten your seat belts, because for the next hour this picture takes an annoying detour that bears practically no resemblance to the beautifully textured atmosphere we’ve expertly been drawn into.

What follows is, wait for it … a cartoon. An animated concoction. And a doofy looking one at that, complete with weirdo characters, crayon colors and bizarre, nonsensical plot turns. There are dystopian overtones, revolutionary undertones and incomprehensible midtones. The whole thing looks like The Yellow Submarine crossed with an episode of The Jetsons, a trippy, drippy diversion stocked with evil-doers and do-gooders and a silly romantic subplot involving Wright’s now-animated character and a love interest voiced, listlessly, by Jon Hamm. WTF?

Folman’s previous film, the award-winning and also animated Waltz With Bashir, was smartly and skillfully directed. It sported a liquid design and a color palette befitting its tale of war. However, it still left me cold, since I’m not a fan of animation unless it involves a toy or an animal. Toy Story II had me weeping and Bambi had me transfixed, but I watched a lot of gunk while raising my kids, and much of it had me checking my watch or itching for the fast-forward button (which, admittedly, I pressed a few times while watching The Congress at home on VOD).

Animation geeks and lovers of live action/animation hybrids may slurp up The Congress like spilt Mountain Dew, but I was appalled. Where did the film’s original conceit, the commercial co-opting of a person’s image and identity, disappear to? Digital cloning is meant to replace the human being with a reasonable facsimile thereof, not with a cartoon character out of Scooby Doo.


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