Thursday, November 14, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "The Congress"

Director: Ari Folman
Runtime: 122 minutes

Five years after the masterful animated doc Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman returns with The Congress, an overly ambitious odd duck that gets just enough right to avoid being a failure. Blending sections of live action and animation, Folman's foray into fiction filmmaking once again features dazzling visuals, even as them come trembling under the weight of unwieldy concepts and themes. Robin Wright's central turn is compelling in both physical and animated forms, and has great fun casting the actress as a version of herself.

For all of the bright, downright trippy animation that fills the second half of The Congress, the film's outlook on modern desires and priorities isn't exactly a happy one. Opening in the not too distant future, the film's first shot is a worn down looking Robin Wright listening to a demeaning lecture from her agent Al (Harvey Keitel). There are references to everything from bad career choices to bad choices in men (Wright was once married to Sean Penn), and it feels all too plausible, despite the undercurrent of humor. One wonders, in a system still filled with such an unfortunate amount of sexism and double standards, how many similar conversations have taken place behind closed doors. 

Things for Robin don't exactly improve when she meets with executive Jeff Green (Danny Huston, laying the sleaze on thick) offers her a troubling opportunity. The aging actress will have the chance to receive a steady flow of income if she takes part in a new process that will allow the studio to scan her entire being (mind, body, and soul), thus allowing them to manipulate and control her every move on screen. The other part of the agreement, however, is that the actual Robin Wright, the one not contained on a computer chip, can never act again in any capacity. 

Folman's set up is, despite some iffy acting moments from Keitel and others, quite effective. Though it's none too subtle about the message, there's enough winking humor to offset the heavy-handedness. Even with Wright loosely playing herself, there's a general avoidance of in-jokes about her career, thus allowing this Robin Wright to exist as her own character. 

Only when we first enter the animated section of the film does The Congress fail to fully gel. Folman has a great deal of fun with the visual style, but his handling of the rules of the animated world are fuzzy-headed at best. Robin's presence in the animated zone (an actual, separate place from the live action world) never feels convincing. The character is left to wander around (and occasionally hallucinate), but she lacks true conflict or motivation. The introduction of the mysterious Dylan (Jon Hamm), sadly, fails to ignite much interest as well. All hell breaks loose in the animated zone, yet it's difficult to feel any sense of tension because the zone still feels so overwhelming and vague as a place. 

Thankfully, Folman eventually remembers to give his protagonist a goal, which gives the animated portion a long overdue sense of narrative momentum. The animated zone's dream logic still frustrates, but the amusing imagery finally comes coupled with the sense of a world with a sense of purpose. Despite Wright's valiant efforts, however, The Congress is more of a director's (and animator's) film than an actor's piece. The actress' voice work in the animated section is vulnerable and human, but Robin Wright the character is ultimately not given enough for Robin Wright the actress to work with. 

On the other hand, when Folman's direction clicks, he delivers some truly arresting moments. For all of the uneven execution throughout, Folman does at least deliver when it comes to the ending. Aided by Max Richter's simple, atmospheric score, and a gut-punch of a visual transition, The Congress ends on a sobering, inexplicably emotional note. Even with all of the hazily drawn characters, concepts, and themes, enough of it sticks along the way that the last 15 minutes dazzle in their own quiet way. The Congress may not be the grand slam follow-up to Waltz With Bashir that it could have been, but there's certainly enough going on that makes it worth going way down the rabbit hole into Folman's relentless vision.

Grade: B-

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