After The Princess Bride made Robin Wright a star, she shocked Hollywood by saying no. No to The Firm and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. No to Jurassic Park, Dirty Dancing, Born on the Fourth of July, and Batman Forever. She even said no to the cover of Vanity Fair.
It’s startling, then, that she’s said yes to Ari Folman’s (Waltz With Bashir) The Congress, an overeaching, half-animated, sci-fi cartoon that keeps a foot in reality long enough to accuse her — yes, Robin Wright herself — of sabotaging her career. Robin Wright plays Robin Wright, an actress and single mother of two, who could have been this generation’s Grace Kelly if she hadn’t made all the wrong moves. Wright hasn’t headlined a hit in more than a decade, in fact or in fiction, yet she slinks through The Congress like a Hitchcock heroine, all slender dresses and perfect hair, as if to prove she’s still more beautiful than 96 percent of women on Earth. But in Hollywood, that’s not enough. The film opens on her tearful face as her agent (Harvey Keitel) hits her with the truth.
“You had it all, Robin,” he laments. “Lousy choices, that’s your whole story. Lousy choices, lousy movies, lousy men.” (Somewhere, Sean Penn glowers.) From the haughty tilt of her jaw, we can see she’s been impossible to handle. Yet the Miramont studio has an offer she can’t refuse. They’ll give her enough money to retire. But first, they’ll scan her — face, body, laugh, tears — re-create her in pixels, erase 10 years from her skin, and cast digital Robin in whatever they want.
“We’ll do all the things that your Robin Wright wouldn’t do,” pledges the studio boss (Danny Huston). “I need Jenny from Forrest Gump, I need what’s-her-name from State of Grace. That’s who I need — I don’t need you.”
Of course, the real Robin Wright’s career isn’t quite so dire. But the scanning technology is real enough — Wright’s already been rotoscoped twice for Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. And the industry’s tendency to dispose of actresses older than 35 is so true that it stings when Wright stares at a poster of The Princess Bride and says good-bye to the future that rosy-cheeked ingénue once imagined lay ahead.
Wright’s performance in the scanning machine is a barnstormer. Under a dome of white lights and cameras, she wrings out every emotion for Miramont’s future use — and her own grand farewell as an actress. We never see her that fragile again — from here on, she’s drained and icily composed. She and Folman aren’t asking for our pity. They’re well aware that a Hollywood career isn’t a human right, or even enough drama to carry this movie. Instead of crying for the collapse of one actress, Folman is crying for the collapse of civilization, the triumph of the synthetic over the real. So after hooking us on a tabloid, fading-star narrative, The Congress, without warning, accelerates and plunges us into the absurd.
Folman leaps ahead 20 years to Wright purring through the desert in a Porsche on her way to Miramont’s Futuristic Congress, a virtual-reality showcase where the studio will announce that her essence can now be eaten, drunk, and worn as perfume. The security guard gives her a pink drug and suddenly the realistic world we’ve known for half the film is overwritten by surrealism inspired by Polish SF novelist Stanislaw Lem (Solaris).
The change is visual. The road turns into a rainbow, the sand dunes into giant whales, and Wright flattens out into a glamorous, 2D cartoon. It’s a slap, a shift in tone as sharp as when Dorothy stepped into Technicolor Oz, and for a scary moment, we wonder if the kids of tomorrow will be so acclimated to computers that movies with human actors really will feel as primitive as old flickerings in black and white. And then Wright is forced to stay a cartoon as The Congress jolts forward again and again, racing through time, introducing new technologies, and bending the definition of identity, until the Hollywood machine that ground her up in the first act feels like a relic from the days of vaudeville.
The second half looks like the acid reveries of Max Fleischer, with every human allowed to drink a vial and be a star. The margins of this mass hallucination are filled with pop cameos: people who’ve become Michael Jackson, Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, or Zeus. They wander through a brightly colored landscape where flowers sprout from their fingertips and smiling lobsters are overjoyed to be eaten. After the cynicism of the opening scenes, we’re almost happy to swallow a dose and enter this dream. But Robin Wright, the eternal buzzkill, can’t play along. Though she has spent her life playing dress-up, the film’s Wright is now possessed by the need for truth. And so these fantasies are shot through with mourning for the society we’ve scrapped, even though it scrapped her first.
The Congress is less a movie than a mood, or really, a manifesto about the value of humanity that can’t quite cohere. Like its actress, it’s an ambitious knockout that doesn’t quite live up to its potential. With the chilly Robin as our guide, continuing to make confounding decisions, we catch only frustrating glimpses of a world we’ll never get to explore. Ironically, the animators and Folman’s imagination have done their jobs so well that the film itself never convinces us of what the script asserts as fact: that reality is better than make-believe. Yet The Congress makes an argument worth hearing. When Robin addresses a sea of cartoon studio shills, she’s speaking to the film, for the film, and beyond the film to a Hollywood that would sell off its own history to survive. “Look at me,” Wright says, “I’m your prophet of doom.” Now that’s a plum role.