“VERY soon, this whole structure that we all love so much will be gone,” prophesies Danny Huston’s wide-grinning movie studio head in Ari Folman’s “The Congress.”
He’s speaking to Robin Wright, who plays a version of herself in the film. In a meeting with Wright and her perplexed agent (Harvey Keitel), Huston’s Jeff Green, the head of the wryly fictional Miramount Studios, relishes foretelling a coming doomsday for actors: a reckoning that will rid the movie business of their gross inefficiency.
All the trappings of movie stardom — “the trailers … the skipping out on PR … the coke … the sexual kinks,” he glowers, is disappearing. The industry is changing, and he couldn’t be happier to see picky actors like Wright vanish.
What he wants is to scan her, to “sample” her and turn Wright, or as he says, “this thing called Robin Wright,” into a digital avatar that the studio can control completely. She just has to sign, never act again, and she (or specifically a younger, 34-year-old computer-generated version of her) will live on in whatever movies Miramount wants.
“I need Buttercup from ‘Princess Bride,’” Green says. “I need Jenny from ‘Forrest Gump.’”
This is the brilliant, high-concept start of Folman’s follow-up to “Waltz With Bashir,” the hypnotic, Oscar-nominated, animated documentary about a (real) Israeli soldier’s nightmares of regret from a 1982 massacre of Lebanese civilians. Like that film, “The Congress” is wholly unique hallucinogenic concoction of psychological trauma and florid cartoon.
A defeated Wright goes in for the scan. Her agent urges her to, lamenting the squandering of her once-promising career: “Lousy choices. Lousy movies. Lousy men.” Ouch. (The sound you hear is a thousand actresses shuddering.)
The film shifts forward 20 years and it gets trippy in a hurry. When Wright arrives in a “restricted animated zone,” she drinks down a vial that converts her and her surroundings into loony, “The Yellow Submarine”-style animation. The road turns to rainbow. A sperm whale breaches alongside her convertible. You’d swear Ringo is in there somewhere.
Wright’s avatar is now a global star, her image beamed across adverts on floating blimps. A future forecast by a cynical doctor played by Paul Giamatti has come to pass: people leave their lives behind in a bizarre, animated playground of chemically induced fantasy.
Green is still presiding over Miramount, but he’s now preparing for another revolution, pushing still further away from reality. He now wants to bottle celebrities like Wright, allowing them to be ingested, drunk in a milkshake. (Tom Cruise is also among the flavors.)
“The Congress” gets lost in its surrealism and turns into a metaphysical mess. It’s the whole structure of “The Congress” that falls apart, quite intentionally. Wright’s animated odyssey is lengthy and muddled (Jon Hamm drops in as the head of animation for Miramount), and the inelegant imagery saps the film of its energy, even if it fits Folman’s scheme.
Yet this mad, ambitious movie is also urgent and unforgettable. The deal offered Wright (whose steely, meta performance is a marvel) isn’t so far-fetched. The digital cloning of actors is well underway. The commodification of movies and celebrity is already in hyper-speed. If Wright were signing up with Marvel, the deal might not look so different.
Loosely adapted from the sci-fi novel “Futurological Congress” by “Solaris”-scribe Stanislaw Lem, “The Congress” — a trip, to be sure — is busting with ideas, from ageism in Hollywood to the soullessness of digital life. It’s a cautionary tale about escapism, hitting theaters after a summer of little else at the movies.
Two and a half stars out of four. (AP)