There’s a distinct difference between making a visionary film and making a good film. The half-live action Hollywood piss take, half-animated freakout The Congress comes by way of a visionary director who has made a film so ludicrously self-serious and uncompromising that it keeps building railway tracks to go off of every several minutes. A maddening experience by Waltz with Bashir filmmaker Ari Folman, The Congress is a deeply idiotic and hoplessly unsalvageable mess that comes across like a version of Cool World that decided to go to university to get a doctorate in how to be a didactic asshole that can’t stop shouting at people. It’s one of the worst films of the year, but at least it’s aiming higher than any other film that could lay claim to the title this year.
Set in an alternate timeline version of modern day Hollywood, actress Robin Wright plays a version of herself as a family woman struggling to stay afloat. Her uncompromising view of how she lives her life and handles her career (refusing to abandon her family for long periods, a deeply rooted aversion to science fiction films) has led to her not finding work for quite some time. Approached by her agent (Harvy Keitel, not playing himself) to allow a movie studio to digitize her for use in films where she’ll never have to step foot on set and collect a paycheque for something beneath her, Robin agrees to stop acting and just let her likeness be used.
Before we even start talking about the animated part, it should be said immediately that Folman’s work here is cynical and as angry as a rabid dog that just stepped on a nail, and not in a constructive or focused way. The Congress is the kind of film where people will launch into lengthy speeches for no reason, and these speeches are nonsensically calibrated to deliver nothing more than a simple point about how Hollywood essentially eats its own and that capitalism will destroy our humanity sooner than we think. A fine idea for a Hollywood satire or fantasy, but there’s no way this film could ever be what I think Folman intended it to be.
Everyone in the live action sequences looks incredibly young, suggesting that this sat around for a very long time before even making its way to be animated. Just look at Kodi Smit-McPhee as Wright’s son and compare it to how he has looked in films across the past couple of years. He looks even younger here than he did in Let Me In. It wouldn’t shock me if this was the kind of film where Folman sat on it until something inspired him enough to get back to work on it, but even then he should have quit while he was ahead.
No one in the film speaks like a human being and Folman hangs over his actors like a dictator. There’s no possibility that this script was written with English as the primary language because nearly every line of dialogue sounds like something that was very literally and awkwardly translated and that Folman is forcing and demanding that every word and syllable be read like it’s the gospel on Sunday morning. Watching Keitel and Wright stumble over obviously unreadable dialogue is embarrassing and makes talented actors seem like rank amateurs. Before he’s even able to apply his strengths as a visual filmmaker, Folman finds himself so far out of his element the film reaches hull crushing depths in nearly record time.
Once Wright has been scanned and her likeness gets used for a new breed of action heroine, Folman’s film jumps ahead twenty years in the future (despite Wright looking like she aged maybe only two years) as she enters a “restricted animation zone” known as Abrahama City. She literally drives into an animated world populated by the dopplegangers and avatars of famous people (most of whom can’t be legally named here, like obvious surrogates for Tom Cruise and Michael Jackson). It’s a world from which there’s essentially no return and no escape for Wright, who teams up with the now animated animator (voiced by Jon Hamm) that was in charge of handling Wright’s digital to try and escape or bring the system down or…
You know what? I don’t fucking care. I don’t know what any of these character or what Folman is trying to accomplish and I can’t be brought to give a shit because the tone here is so astoundingly off putting and chastising of the viewer. Once the animation kicks in, Folman becomes insufferably preachy and unfocused, content to hide his lack of any coherent though behind a bunch of outlandish imagery. A film that could have acted as a seriously wonky, but still prescient critique of how the Hollywood system chews up and spits out women of a certain age because they aren’t profitably attractive anymore becomes so lost up its own philosophical ass that it never returns to the most interesting thread it has come up with.
Essentially, The Congress becomes a never ending remake of the Genesis “Land of Confusion” video with animated characters instead of puppets, right down to dated nods to Ronald Reagan and Grace Jones that try to turn mothballs into gumballs. Folman has such a fatalistic “who cares” attitude that he can’t be bothered to do anything about his anger, instead making hyperbolic and repeatedly uneasy and blatantly offensive comparisons between Hollywood and what happened in Nagasaki and Europe during World War II. He’s genuinely trying to make the point that filmmaking is a war and anyone who doesn’t get their way in the studio system might as well have had war crimes perpetrated against them. That’s Folman’s only remaining point and he beats on that drum like an asshole for over an hour.
He’s a smart filmmaker and one with a decided social conscience, but the gall he shows in ripping off shots directly from some of his biggest successes reeks of a man that has given up. The Congress is so effectively awful and miscalculated that I will take pause whenever approaching one of his films again. This is a film where Jon Hamm plays a character that impregnates Zeus’ daughter, she has a kid, the kid becomes a city, and then this dude literally fucks the city. And yet, there’s nothing playful or knowingly creative about it. It’s not a head trip. This is a philosopher who wants to impose abject misery on the audience by way of candy coated psychedelic visions. He has a film where people try to assassinate animated characters and people talk about “neo God creations” and how they “cracked the animated formula for free choice,” and none of it amounts to anything because Folman can’t stop shouting at the audience long enough about what’s bothering him to allow the film to breathe.
Folman keeps piling on messages throughout his film from diatribes about how anti-depressants mask the true harshness of reality or how filmmakers are complacent when it comes to their work being used for evil purposes, but they all get dropped almost as immediately as they get brought up. It’s like once Folman gets rabidly going that he has to stop, wag his finger in the audience’s already overwhelmed face and shout “AND ANOTHER THING…” It loses all sense of purpose and intellectual weight with a “look at me” approach that sickens instead of invites thought.
The Congress is a work of rampant ego made by a brilliant filmmaker that clearly just lost his shit and needed to get something off his chest. It’s unwatchable sober and I doubt if any universal truths can be gleaned from it while under the influence of some heavy drug use. It’s a film of noise, splendor, and depressingly free form false candor. At least Folman can take comfort in knowing that his film has so much to unpack from it that I could spend almost a full day writing about various other things that I despise about it and that I think are ill advised and still feel like I have been engaged on some sort of level. Rage is a powerful emotion, and if Folman wanted me to feel something he certainly accomplished that if nothing else.