Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir was one of the critical hits of 2008. The film’s visual conceit of mixing animation flash-back-sequences to fully realise the traumas inflicted on soldiers during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. He now returns to feature film making with The Congress, a sci-fi, meta, psychological drama, thriller employing the mix of live action and animation once again.
Robin Wright plays actress Robin Wright who has made some bad career decisions, mostly through fear and a mild inconvenience of wanting to raise her children properly. Her lovingly but worn down agent Al (Harvey Keitel) brings her a deal from Miramount Studios head honcho Jeff Green (Danny Huston). He wants to capture the Robin Wright everyone remembers from The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump. He wants to create a digitised version of her that can be placed in any number of movies on the strict condition that she practically disappears from public view. In effect she can live forever in film but non-existent in the real world.
This is the initial conceit for what drives The Congress in to it’s balls to the wall second act as Folman then employs his animation techniques. Twenty years after the fictionalised Wright sells her likeness over she heads to attend a gathering which seems to be taking place in a Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas meets The Yellow Submarine world where reality and delusions mix into a visually inspired but confusing hodge podge. In all honesty it’s difficult to fully grasp what the plot then becomes. Wright seems to be involved in an existential crisis, which is understandable as she still continues to appear on screens – except it’s not her. Then there’s an assassination plot against the creator of this virtual world which feels like Toon Town set in The Hunger Games. A revolution breaks out and Wright meets Dylan (John Hamm – in voice only), an animator who first worked on Wright’s likeness all those years ago. Together they take literal flights of fancy as they take off on the run away from people wanting to harm them… for some reason. All this builds to a conclusion of The Matrix Reloaded style proportions.
The Congress is a fascinating concept for a movie. Taking a real world subject, injecting them into a psychedelic world of chaos and delusion and then come out the other side in some bleak, apocalyptic future. The Congress though is a huge disappointment.
The performances are strong all around. Robin Wright continues, along with her role in House of Cards, to show that she now can temper grace and anger in equal measure. Her turn is nothing if not devoted. She even reveals what a beautiful voice she has on the films soundtrack (look up the song Forever Young, it’s quite wonderful). Harvey Keitel puts in one of his best performances in years. Mostly confined to cameos and fleeting roles recently here he gets to show off why he should still be considered one of New York’s finest. John Hamm, manages to make his animated character fully rounded and Danny Huston (who is increasingly sounding like his father now) uses his slimey, corporate persona which in some films can be over the top to great effect. Paul Gimatti also turns up in a small but pivotal role that’s full of quiet import.
As mentioned the soundtrack composed by Max Richter is expectedly lovely. The opening act’s intriguing concept is slightly marred by a plot involving Wright’s fictional son who is going slowly deaf and blind. They live out in an old air hanger along with her fictional disgruntled, teenage daughter. These moments plod but once we head into The Congress itself things sadly grind to a halt. The animation is Tex Avery and is on-a-par with Yellow Sub movements, it’s a strangely archaic way of presenting a disjointed, future reality. The plot itself becomes meaningless as the visuals and emotions take over. Unfortunately neither are that interesting so the film ends up relying on the strong vocal talents and soundtrack. At over two hours the whole thing begins to drag.
An intriguing concept with some fascinating ideas in there and a devoted cast but ultimately a plodding trudge of existential thoughts and un-involving animation. Pick up the soundtrack instead.
The Congress is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD.