Monday, September 01, 2014

The Congress: Ari Folman Channels Stanislaw Lem

Polish science fiction master Stanislaw Lem deftly satirized Soviet utopianism in The Futurological Congress. For his modernized riff, Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman uses Hollywood as the new evil empire. It is a smooth substitution. In the very near future, the movie business will take exploitation to even greater technological heights, as Robin Wright learns first-hand when she plays herself in Folman’s The Congress (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lem’s novel may have provided the seed of inspiration, but you not find his well traveled hero Ijon Tichy. Instead, Wright will attend the conference in his stead, but first we will witness the final days of her acting career. Despite her early success in hits like The Princess Bride, Folman’s Wright turned out to be difficult to work with, frequently dropping out of high profile roles at the last minute. While she always claimed it was for the sake of her ailing son Aaron, her frustrated agent really knows it is fear and a lack of confidence that sabotaged her career.

However, Miramount has a final offer to make. For a lump sum payment, they will digitize Wright and program her into all the hit movies she was never shrewd enough to accept. Evidently, this is the way the business is going, so she reluctantly accepts. Twenty years later, she is the biggest star in the business, but nobody recognizes the real Wright. Accepting an invitation to speak at Miramount’s Futurological Congress, Wright plans to challenge their questionable ethical priorities from the podium. However, to get there, she must travel into Miramount’s animated city of avatars. Unfortunately, little things like the nature of time and reality will complicate her plan.

Frankly, the first fifty minutes of live action could have easily been condensed. In fact, by the time the film finally switches over into animation, Folman seems so eager to go off on a fantastical romp he never fully establishes the rules and boundaries of his chemically induced world of cartoon avatars. Still, it all looks spectacularly trippy.

Granted, Folman’s Congress is a bit of a narrative mess and it lacks Lem’s subversive bite, but it is fully stocked with fascinating ideas and surprisingly effective performances. In one of many intriguing side-plots, Folman puts a Matrix-like spin of Otto Preminger’s Laura when Dylan Truliner confesses to Wright he fell in love with her while working as the animator manipulating her digital image.

As Al the agent, Harvey Keitel delivers a monologue end all monologues, while Paul Giamatti (who could have advised Wright on playing a meta-meta version of herself, having done something similar in Cold Souls) adeptly brings some stabilizing sensitivity and dignity to the film as Aaron’s kindly Dr. Baker. Whether as an animated avatar or in the flesh, Danny Huston also makes a dynamite villain as Miramount (great name) studio boss Jeff Green.

Most importantly, The Congress’ animation is wildly cool and colorful, with enough thinly disguised cameos and visual quotes to reward dozens of repeat viewings. In contrast, the Wright family drama gets tiresome the first time through, especially when it comes to poor, pitiful Aaron, whose bland personality seems to be degenerating along with his sight and hearing. Nevertheless, Folman puts so much crazy ambition up on the screen, it more than compensates for the occasional lapse into Lifetime melodrama. Recommended for fans of cult science fiction and animation, as well as Lem readers who enjoy being scandalized, The Congress opens this Friday (9/5) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.