Monday, September 15, 2014

THE CONGRESS Is Mind-Bendingly Strange and Ambitious


- I love a good weird movie, and THE CONGRESS is one of the strangest I've ever seen. That said, it's one of those gloriously ambitious films that very nearly completely collapses under its own weight. One thing's for sure: it's incredibly hard to talk about in a critical manner. There are so many interesting ideas and memorable visuals and astounding performances in this film ... and for that reason, I say it's a must-watch. But, there is also much about the movie's plot and creative choices that just left me scratching my head, wondering what was going on and waiting for some other shoe to drop that would make the puzzle pieces fall into place. That shoe, as you can probably tell, never quite comes. In fact, THE CONGRESS is unique in that it keeps getting increasingly nonsensical as it goes. It begins as compelling social-commentary science-fiction. It ends as an animated acid-trip that has quite possibly gone totally off the rails. Like I said though, I can appreciate this sort of thing, and enjoy a beautiful disaster if it at least has enough substance to stick with me. And THE CONGRESS, if nothing else, sticks with you. There has never been another movie quite like this one.

The film stars, and is about, Robin Wright. The actress who made a splash way back when with The Princess Bride, and who then turned down big roles in order to carve her own path in the movies. Of late, Wright has seemingly been everywhere, and seems to be in the midst of a full-blown career resurgence - popping up in several recent films, and helping to anchor popular Netflix TV series House of Cards. But THE CONGRESS willfully ignores that last part. Instead, it portrays a fictionalized version of Robin Wright who is an exaggerated take on her real self. This Robin was the belle of the Hollywood ball in her prime - a promising young actress with the world at her fingertips. But because she refused to play ball, and insisted on bucking the system, she now finds herself approaching middle age and wanting for work. Left to her own devices, Wright would prefer to work only on projects that speak to her, but there are extenuating circumstances. This Robin Wright has two kids - one of whom, her son, is very sick with a debilitating illness. To care for him, the actress needs income, and so she reluctantly agrees to participate in a new process that will change the face of entertainment forever.

At the prodding of her manager (Harvey Keitel), and a devilish studio chief (a fantastic Danny Huston), Wright agrees to have her voice, body, and movements scanned and turned into a virtual actor - an actor who is, forever, a young Robin Wright fresh off The Princess Bride. Wright grapples with the decision to literally sell her soul to the studio, but ultimately succumbs and goes through with it. This decision, and the gorgeously-shot, ominously disturbing and heartbreaking scanning process, is what comprises the first third of the film. And here's the thing: this first section of the movie is completely gripping. As I watched it, I was pretty sure I was watching the beginnings of a new science fiction masterpiece. Wright's performance is off-the-charts excellent. And Huston - wow, the guy just exudes sinister sleaze and is absolutely, terrifyingly great.

Then something weird happens - the movie flashes decades into the future. We see a sixty-something Robin Wright drive into some sort of high-security compound, where she's an invited guest and featured speaker at the studio's (satirically called Miramount) keynote address. But the address doesn't take place in the real world. It takes place in an animated virtual universe - a shared mass-hallucination induced by popping some pills. In this world, people are free to assume whatever form they'd like. And so anthropomorphic cartoon animals cavort with with multi-limbed aliens. Apparently, the future looks like hand-drawn 2D animation.

There's something undeniably fascinating about this segment of the film. In particular, I got a huge kick out of the satirical glimpses at the scanned Robin Wright's movie superstardom. The virtual Robin is a megastar - featured in her own neverending sci-fi action franchise and trained to answer banal interview questions with the unflinching poise of royalty. However, the more time we spend in the virtual world, the less things make sense. The movie seems to drop the more grounded sci-fi edge of its opening in favor of anything-goes chaos. The 2D animation here is eye-popping and colorful, but the movie gets a little carried away with showing off the endless possibilities of the format. In turn, we lose track of the "rules" of this world, and it becomes increasingly unclear what's happening and what the stakes of the film are. When the "real" Robin Wright has her big Network "mad as hell" moment, what could have been a riveting scene is mired in so much oddball surreality that it's hard to know quite what to make of it.

Eventually, the movie takes an even odder turn when it again flash-forwards in time. I won't spoil anything, except to say that a new character is introduced, voiced by Jon Hamm, who becomes an ally of Robin's, and eventually more. Again, there is some absolutely fascinating stuff going on in the movie's final third. But there's also the feeling that we're watching a half-finished sketch play out before us. The longer the movie goes, the more it becomes clear that we seem to be missing key details about the story. I think that there's a certain type of sci-fi story that can get away with playing fast and loose with plot and plot detail, and exist more as a dartboard for out-there ideas. But THE CONGRESS' first third sets up such a strong sci-fi premise that it's disappointing to see such a jarring tonal shift later in the film. I also became increasingly frustrated the more I realized that the film's narrative was playing out as if relayed by a really stoned guy who was leaving out a lot of important information.

And yet ... man, this movie, as trainwreck-y as it may get towards the end, it downward spirals in a fashion that's completely engrossing. A lot of that is Robin Wright. She's phenomenal in this film. Particularly in the live-action segments, but also in the animated ones. There's no question that this is a passion project for her, and it's clear that she's putting her all into this. She perfects a certain just-left-of-reality affectation in her acting that makes her character feel real, yet also lends itself to the film's increasingly surreal tone and bizarre narrative turns. I give Wright a ton of credit for putting it all out there, playing herself, and holding nothing back - she, more than anything else in the film, allows us to buy into all of the movie's weirdness.

There's a lot to pick apart here, but I also do think there's a lot to praise. Like I said, it's one of those movies ... you can find fault, but you can't deny its insane level of ambition. The movie could have just been a pretty basic-but-compelling sci-fi parable about an actor going to extremes to achieve cinematic immortality. But it takes a hard left turn and also becomes a cautionary tale about a society so ready to immerse itself in user-generated fantasy that reality itself is all but left behind. And then it takes a further turn into the great unknown, becoming a surreal fable about a society divided between haves and have-not, in which those not able to join in on the endless youth and riches of the omnipresent virtual world are left to suffer in a cracked and crumbling real world. THE CONGRESS took me to some really interesting places, and presented ideas and concepts and images that I won't soon forget.

So yeah ... I am left wondering how to grade this flawed yet fascinating epic. For sheer ambition and richness of imagination, I lean towards a more favorable assessment. THE CONGRESS is a movie well worth watching, discussing, and sharing with friends. Writer/director Ari Folman swings for the fences. And sometimes, you wish there was more of that in film. Watch it. Discuss it. Just be prepared for that discussion to include multiple utterances of "WTF."

My Grade: B+

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