Film Review: The Congress

Part live-action, part cornea-searing animation, this cinematic overload is ambitious but ultimately fatigues as it plays with the intriguing notion of a fading Hollywood star selling rights so her cyberspace avatar can rise to superstardom and stay fo

Israeli-born filmmaker Ari Folman previously made quite a splash with his 2008 animated art-house entry Waltz with Bashir, the Oscar-nominated documentary hybrid focusing on Israeli soldiers who fought in Lebanon. With The Congress, Folman enters a very different power-driven realm, with the entertainment business replacing war as the focus. But he bit off more than he could chew and gives audiences too much to digest.

No match for Bashir’s elegant narrative, The Congress falls victim to heavy-handed flip-flopping as it struggles to incorporate themes like family values and true love into a tacky Hollywood fable full of explosive action and signifying little.

What inspired Folman here is promising: the “synthespian” craze that originated decades ago as a way of sampling famous actors so that their likenesses could be used for film roles outliving them. L.A. techie Scott Billups was a well-known Hollywood proponent of the procedure in the early ’90s and New Line Cinema used the synthespian idea for its 2002 film Simone.

At the center of The Congress is an aging actor persuaded to sell rights to her life, as the early 40s in Hollywood turns out to be a good time to sell. The seller is Robin Wright, played by Robin Wright, whose movie career is in decline. Her longtime agent Al (Harvey Keitel) blames it on her “lousy choices.”

But has he got one last deal for her—a deal he masterminded with Jeff Green (Danny Huston), the head of Miramount Studios (no relation to Miramax or Paramount, of course). Jeff’s a familiar oily son-of-a-gun and makes her one of those Hollywood offers she can’t refuse. His pitch is that the studio will scan her, not scam her, in an exclusive arrangement to buy her digital likeness and keep her forever young in whatever films the studio chooses. In return, Robin will get a nice chunk of change.

It’s clear she can use it. Robin lives in creepy digs, with all the “glamour” of a Salton Sea homestead. She shares a funky former air hangar on the edge of an L.A. airport with daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) and, more significantly, ailing son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has some kind of rare degenerative disease affecting hearing and sight. Not yet incapacitated, he indulges his obsessions with glider and kite-flying.

Two decades later and with attorney Steve (Michael Stahl-David) doing his Hollywood lawyer thing, the action abruptly shifts to Abramarama City in a blast of explosive animation that combines elements of anime, old cartoons and comic books. The now older Robin is headed to the futurist city of Abramarama and settles in at the Miramount Hotel where the Futurist Congress is taking place. (It resembles those L.A. conventions that bring fans together with their favorite personalities.)

The computer-generated Robin has become a superstar, but she’s on the decline. The other Robin bumps into studio honcho Jeff, who wants her to sign a new contract. His pitch this time is that movies are old news and chemicals are in. He wants Robin to now agree to become a substance fans can drink (the studio’s new Miramount Nagasaki division has created the formula). This animated second half gets loopier and there’s a crush of characters, including son Aaron’s Dr. Baker (Paul Giamatti) and Dylan Truliner (Jon Hamm in voice only), Miramount’s head animator and the creative force behind the artificial Robin. He and Robin fall in love.

This trippy mess continues chaotically to force-feed an assassination, massive destruction, war and what’s meant to be a touching reunion. The only clear winner in this scattershot pile-up of action, satire and family drama is that of style over substance. The story puzzles, the unsatisfying ending fizzles. But the animation and its often-psychedelic evocation of this crazy quilt of a futuristic world of celebrity worship often dazzles.

Whether or not it was Folman’s intention, the crazed nonsense and the film’s roster of obnoxious movie types suggest both a serious embrace of drugs and an aversion to business as Hollywood plays it.

Alhough more synthetic than synthespian, The Congress rarely bores in its live-action first hour and is often visually stupefying in its largely animated last hour. The film has already been available on demand for some time, an amenity that befits synthespians whose images can be summoned and paused at the mere push of a button.

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