Based on a 1971 sci-fi novel by Stanislaw Lem, this movie begins intriguingly as Hollywood satire. Robin Wright plays Robin Wright, an actress on the wrong side of 40 with two kids to support. The roles aren’t there, so her agent (a very warm, welcome Harvey Keitel) gets her an unusual audition with a studio boss (Danny Huston, ever charming and malevolent). Basically the deal is this, he explains: We get your past and future likeness to manipulate however we want in the computer—but no porn!—now and forever, so as to not compete with yourself. “I need Buttercup,” he says. “I don’t need you.” These are the best, funniest scenes to The Congress, though not the most eye-popping ones, which soon follow.
The movie’s directed by Ari Folman, whose animated Waltz With Bashir (2009) recounted his experiences in the Israeli Army when it invaded Lebanon in the ’80s. This is a very different, futuristic kettle of fish, rendered in both live-action and animation to mixed results. War, as veterans will tell you, can be a surreal experience—oddly well suited to the animator’s fickle pen. But Hollywood has always been about magic and shape-shifting: We expect to be tricked and enchanted. Thus, 20 years later, when Robin drives out to a fan-filled entertainment convention center in the desert (perhaps to sign a fresh contract for a new product), then doses herself with a certain drug, things get delightfully but unsurprisingly strange.
Suddenly the sand turns to waves and cars morph into smiling creatures that comport like dolphins. Robin’s hotel is a pill-popping psychotopia, a kind of phantasmagoric Kafka theme park where paying guests get to be their favorite celebrity. Folman packs the movie with plenty of familiar faces, though he avoids the names: Tom Cruise, Marilyn Monroe, Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Grace Jones, etc. Yet in this Disneyland-on-acid milieu, Robin finds a fascist edge—entertainment as mind control, a means of subjugating the populace. Uncle Walt has become a dictator.
This is where Lem, a Pole who spent most of his life behind the Iron Curtain, proves a hard fit with today’s Hollywood. As Folman lurches his story (and Robin) forward by another seven decades, his parable grows ever more unwieldy. Jon Hamm and Paul Giamatti show up in supporting roles, but they get lost in the shifts from Kansas to Oz and back. (When Robin complains, “I just wanna get out of this hallucination,” we share the feeling.) The Congress is at its sentimental weakest when it comes to Robin’s son (Kodi Smit-McPhee from The Road ), who’s going blind and deaf. (This allows Wright to shed ever more tears, apparently written into her contract.) Its second-half strength is the animation, richly colored but flat, like Betty Boop, early Disney, or Looney Tunes—Hanna-Barbera meets Matisse. Forty years ago, this might’ve been considered a trip movie, like Allegro non troppo. Today the debates about free will versus chemical mind control feel dated and a little too Matrix-y.
Finally, nobody should worry about the fate of Robin Wright. Thanks to House of Cards, she’s doing just fine in her career—without benefit of the computer. Runs Fri., Aug. 29–Thurs., Sept. 4 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 122 minutes.