25 August 2014


There are still a lot of people in favour of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell receiving award nominations for their performance capture roles in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. From the outset, at least, Ari Folman's The Congress views the ape-ifying technology as something a bit more sinister, with emphasis on the "capture". Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like the film is hugely interested in following through on that.

Robin Wright of The Princess Bride and, latterly, House of Cards fame, plays a version of herself in a version of near-future Hollywood. The roles have apparently stopped coming and she has a daughter and a disabled son to support. Her agent passes on a proposal from studio conglomerate Miramount Pictures, whereby they offer to create a lifelike CG-duplicate of her that they can use in their movies any which way they please, in return for a lump sum and the promise that she'll never act in person again.

The hook is intriguing, but that's not even the half of it. Thanks to some contract wrangling, she gets a clause to renegotiate over the rights for her likeness two decades later. This is where the second half of the film picks up- 20 years in the future, after some cataclysmic event has led people to take refuge with a psychotropic drug that makes everything appear animated. Robin's contract is up for discussion at a futurological congress which takes place in this animated realm, but she winds up on an entirely unexpected journey instead.

With this eventual diversion from the initial premise comes a certain superficiality. From the outset, Folman's script is given over to pretentious monologues which are peppered all the way through the opening hour, which is presented in live action. Harvey Keitel delivers a fair few of them as Robin's faithful agent, elevating one particularly memorable tirade just by the strength of his performance, but most of this dialogue seems written to establish this version of Robin Wright- given how she's constantly lambasted for her poor choices and seems to have fallen upon hard times, it seems we're meant to gather that she hasn't worked in a movie since Forrest Gump.

It all feels off because little of what we're told in this manner is actually felt. Moments that might seem profound if we felt even a bit of the emotion that is implied, rather than evoked, simply seem trite and high-faluting. For instance, the only time we really see Kodi Smit-McPhee as Robin's ailing son, he's musing about what would happen if he could crash a passenger plane into his kite. Like much of the film, it's a striking image that isn't afforded any actual weight whatsoever outside of the spectacle. And in the second act, whatever the film gains for ceding into an animated landscape, it isn't weight.

Based on a hotch-potch of influences, such as Max Fleischer, Ralph Bakshi and Heavy Metal, it's a relentlessly trippy sequence that feels like it goes on forever. You have to concentrate really, really hard to avoid having the story slip out of focus, which makes it all the more unrewarding that there's so little to latch onto. In the end, it's the kind of condescending satire in which calling a studio Miramount Pictures passes for irony. Not that this sort of thing normally bothers me, but the introduction of a tech mogul called "Reeve Bobs" made me want to take off my shoe and throw it at the cinema screen.

If nothing else, Wright's performance is solid throughout, and not because she's playing a depreciated version of her own career- her character's disdain for sci-fi films chimes with her own IMDb credits over the years and plays as a reflexive pointer of where her arc is headed. It's because she's just about the only constant in a whirling dervish of a film, which doesn't hang together as a whole. Danny Huston gives his most Danny Huston performance to date as a punchable studio executive turned unflattering cartoon fascist, and Jon Hamm voices a frankly creepy animator who has previously grappled with an identity crisis- in a film that starts from a point of self-image, Wright is the only character whose self-image we can actually grasp.

The Congress isn't nearly as profound as it appears. It's sporadically a film about self-image, but when it's not about that, it's not really about anything. Wacky visuals and pop culture non-sequiturs prop it up past the two hour mark, but there's little else to recommend it. As a satire of Hollywood and movies as industrial product, it feels like a strawman, building up ridiculous parodies of reality in order to knock them down, rather than engaging with anything that could hold the viewer's attention during the sprawling spells of fantasy and animation. Its caricatures are too weak and their delivery too po-faced, and like our fictionalised heroine, it has little to offer an audience but a feeling of unfulfilled potential.

The Congress is still showing at selected cinemas nationwide, and will be released on DVD, Blu-ray and video on-demand services on December 8th.
If you've seen The Congress, why not leave a comment below? I promise not to throw my shoe at you if you can provide an acceptable defence of Reeve Bobs.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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