"Congress" Drowns in its Own Ambition

"Congress" Drowns in its Own Ambition

To say that Ari Folman’s The Congress has an axe to grind is an understatement of titanic proportions. A film that’s literally brimming with ideas, it’s a production that’s as timely as they come as the director, in adapting the novel by Stanislaw Lem, looks at how technology is causing the intersection between reality and fantasy to blur far too easily. While this is a worthwhile topic and Folman’s attack of it is nothing less than enthusiastic, the movie ultimately gets bogged down by overplaying its hand, restating its theme again and again to the point of tedium.

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Robin Wright plays herself in the film or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and she finds herself a crossroads where her career is concerned.  Not as beautiful as she once was and having made questionable professional choices that have not panned out, she finds that scripts aren’t coming her way as quickly or as often that they once did.  She’s purposely separated herself from the Hollywood crowd, living in a secluded area near an airport with her daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle), who’s eager to begin her own life, and her son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who’s slowly going blind as well as losing his hearing; the treatment for the young man’s condition will be long and expensive.

While dealing with all of this, Wright’s agent Al (a great Harvey Keitel) brings her an interesting offer.  Studio head Jeff Green (Danny Huston) has in his possession a new form of technology that will ensure that the actress be in films long after her death, that she will appear forever young, and that she will not have to be present during the making of these movies.  All she has to do is allow them to do a complete scan of her body, capture multiple expressions of her face and record her voice; this data will be stored and used at the discretion of the studio.  While Wright understands how this could change her and her son’s life, she recognizes this for the devil’s bargain that it is, knowing that in essence she will be selling her identity and to some degree, her soul.

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There wouldn’t be much of a movie if Wright didn’t agree to undergo this process and once she does is when things start to go off the rails.  The film jumps 20 years into the future and we enter a trippy animated world in which identity has become a commodity that anyone can sell or buy and that the essence of anyone who’s been scanned can be put into any scenario imagined.  Seeing Clint Eastwood walk by Frida Kahlo on the streets doesn’t raise an eyebrow nor does the fact that John Wayne might be striking up a conversation with Marilyn Monroe.  Even more troubling is the fact that people have no been reduced to a chemical form, so that you can become them if you simply drink them, as it were.

Obviously – hopefully – this sort of identity manipulation is an exaggeration but the point Folman is making is a valid one.  Advances in virtual reality technology have allowed a certain degree of surrogate behavior and we have seen the likenesses of Audrey Hepburn, Monroe, Wayne and others used in commercials though we have yet to see stars from yesteryear share the screen with contemporary actors in full feature films, at least not yet.  The fact that these performer’s personae can be manipulated and changed without their say so, thus affecting the way audiences perceive them is a valid concern.  In negotiating the deal in the film, Wright is adamant that her image (identity?) never appears in a pornographic movie.  This is agreed to but when “Robin Wright” stars in a series of vacuous action films, her reputation is permanently damaged, perhaps more so by the “interview” she gives to promote the project in which she comes off as a complete bimbo.  Yet, in this world, it doesn’t really matter; as Wright says as one point, “Nobody sees me…I’m just an old lady to them.”  In every way, her identity has been stolen and she has become invisible to everyone but herself.

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Again, there is a great deal on Folman’s plate here, all of it valid. However, the movie loses its way when it enters the animated other world.  The director makes his point again and again and again, driving home the point that our most precious commodity is ourselves and that to compromise this principal just once is a slippery slope that leads to damnation.  Coming in at just over two hours, Congress, despite its noble intent overstays its welcome, bombarding us with repetitive images and ideas that finally dull its message. 

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