Published Aug 28, 2014Hollywood studios have never played coy about the fact that they rank their extensive portfolio of "talents" according to box-office bankability, youthful appeal, TMZ desirability and so on. After all, it's the only reasonable way to explain why Kristen Stewart is still on the payroll. But what if, in our post-Avatar era, flesh-and-blood actors were altogether removed from the equation? In exchange for a hefty pay check, could major studios simply scan and sample their stars' forever-young avatars to be used in movies however they saw fit (i.e., from spaghetti westerns to amateur porn) and until the end of time?
This new economy of "scanned actors" evolving in a parallel cartoon universe lies at the heart of The Congress, a dystopic spectacle melding contemplative live action with psychedelic animation, by Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir). Based on Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem's 1971 novel, The Futurological Congress, Folman's kaleidoscopic satire of the entertainment business casts Robin Wright (House of Cards) as "Robin Wright," an aging actress and former Princess Bride whose career prospects seem extremely bleak until Jeff (Danny Huston), a callous executive at Miramount (wink wink) offers to purchase her cinematic identity for 20 years, in effect exiling the real-life thespian from public life. Wright isn't exactly thrilled by the idea — the draw of "no longer having to kiss actors with bad breath," as the pitch goes, doesn't quite match the value of her intellectual copyright or becoming a digital studio puppet — but she signs off anyway to spend more time with her ailing son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Things then take a decidedly trippy turn, as the story jumps ahead 20 years to find a 60-something Wright no longer bound by her contract. Paying a visit to the glossy animated realm of Abrahama to attend the studios' titular congress, Wright processes the news that her avatar has become the industry's highest grossing digital star. "I wish you could see me animated," she tells her son wistfully, taken aback by the far-out reflection of her graphically enhanced alter ego. "I look like a combination between Cinderella on heroin and an Egyptian Queen on a bad hair day."
Constantly blurring the lines between character and actor, live-action and animation, reality and fantasy, red pill and blue pill, The Congress is a visually dazzling and downright riveting meditation on corporate greed, the perils of unencumbered artistry and our cultural disdain for age-earned wisdom. After a two-season binge of Wright as ice queen Claire Underwood in Netflix's smash political thriller, her eponymous turn in The Congress offers a refreshing change of pace, as she brings both quiet confidence and endearing vulnerability to the role of a middle-aged performer forced to confront her on-screen — and off-screen — demise. And while Jon Hamm holds his own playing a worshiping Wright fan and studio animator, Paul Giamatti delivers the strongest supporting turn as Dr. Barker, the protective physician to Wright's son. With splashes of The Yellow Submarine, Stanley Kubrick, the Fleischer Brothers and, of course, The Matrix, Folman conducts a grand cinematic opus that reminds us why tampering with free will in a technologically enhanced future remains a lose-lose proposition.
(Films We Like)