At one point early in THE CONGRESS, the agent (Harvey Kietel) for the lead character tells a studio head “No science fiction films. They’re all stupid and my client doesn’t do stupid stuff.” We laugh knowingly because at its very best, science fiction is the most intelligent and provocative of genres, and THE CONGRESS is a noble attempt to make a science fiction film that appeals to art-house audiences, something that has become more popular as of late (see also UPSTREAM COLOR and I ORIGINS). There are, in fact, two potentially very good science fiction films lying at its heart, but it seems torn over deciding which one it should be.
Written and directed by Ari Folman (WALTZ WITH BASHEAR), THE CONGRESS is ostensibly adapted from a novel by Stanislaw Lem, who notoriously disliked every film adaptation of his work for not being exactly like the original stories. It’s a safe bet he wouldn’t have approved of this one as well. Robin Wright, the talented and well-respected actress best known for such movies as FORREST GUMP and THE PRINCESS BRIDE but who has been less visible than she should be as of late, plays Robin Wright, a talented and well-respected actress best-known for such movies as FORREST GUMP and THE PRINCESS BRIDE, but who has been less visible than she should be as of late. To pay for the medical bills of her son, who is gradually losing both his sight and hearing, she agrees to a unique deal from Miramount Studios (gee, now there’s an original name!): they will digitally scan her likeness and voice into a computer-generated likeness that the studio will be able insert as they wish into any movie or advertisement of their choice. So far, so good. It’s a well-worn premise that has been used in such films as Michael Crichton’s LOOKER and Andrew Niccol’s S1M0NE, as well as Connie Willis’ novel Remake and the unproduced Rene Daalder-Rem Koolhass script HOLLYWOOD TOWER (intended for Russ Meyer!), but the film shows signs of going in a fresh new direction. Instead, it goes straight off the beaten path as we jump twenty years later, with Wright slated to attend The Futurist Congress of the title, and science fictional focus is itself redirected towards a new designer drug that can affect external as well as internal reality. That premise was used repeatedly by Philip K. Dick in such novels as Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, so it’s appropriate that the film shift to the rotoscoped animation that Richard Linklater also used in his adaptation of Dick’s A SCANNER DARKLY. Although striking, the animation is unfortunately also unimaginative and unappealing, resembling a garish cross between Max Fleischer and Peter Bagge, and the story during this segment is largely left to endless talk between Wright and another inhabitant of The Congress (boringly voiced by Jon Hamm) that tries to explain what is going on and pound away the film’s themes.
Can I recommend THE CONGRESS? Not really, especially if I was to judge it on how the audience I attended with reacted: at least two people walked out and the woman behind me growled that she hated it as the lights went up. Most critics, on the other hand, seem to have enjoyed it while admitting confusion. From my own personal perspective, I admired what the film was trying to do, and that the two main science fiction “hooks” of the film are used in an attempt to do what the genre does best, examining how innovations in technology affect both societies and personal lives. On the other hand, it seems to me that writer-director Folman is juggling with too many balls in the air; good science fiction sticks with a premise and extrapolates it to the end, or tries to find a way to successfully make connections between them, and this hasn’t happened here. In the end, we are just left with familiar bromides about fantasy-vs.-reality, and how the media and celebrity culture sell illusions, none of which are particularly profound or original.
One very good reason to watch THE CONGRESS is for the performance by Robin Wright, one of our most consummate professionals as well as an extremely fine actress. Some may wonder what the big deal is about an actress “playing herself,” but as with BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, the lead performer is not really playing herself, but a character in a world parallel to our own that happens to share some strong similarities, and it’s a much more challenging and difficult part than one might think. Wright, as always, is up to the task. We again laugh when the studio head berates Wright for her bad choices, as the real-life actress is well known for having made excellent decisions with both her parts and how she has played them. This time, it’s the movie that’s indecisive.