Robin Wright plays “herself” in “The Congress,” a trippy cautionary tale about where society is headed, assuming movie stars license their essence to studios and audiences abandon cinema in favor of chemical cocktails that allow them to experience life as their celebrity of choice. Conceptually speaking, such a satire could only work as animation, but even then, it doesn’t quite come together — though fans of last year’s “Holy Motors” may appreciate a surreal double bill with this live-toon hybrid, ideal for midnight crowds and psychedelic enthusiasts. Meanwhile, admirers of director Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir” should seriously adjust their expectations.
Ironically, Folman limits his audience by abandoning the Israeli-specific context of his earlier work in favor of a more universal cultural critique, returning (somewhat) to the world of live-action here by opening with what could be an hourlong episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The remainder of the film functions as an in-spirit-only adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s “The Futurological Congress,” redirecting the classic sci-fi novel’s anti-communist satire (minus nearly all of its humor) toward a society dominated by drug companies and Hollywood studios — two industries that make decidedly strange bedfellows.
This bizarre journey begins in a simplified version of the real world, where Wright and her two kids live in a renovated hangar adjacent to a busy airport. The actress sits in her home office taking the abuse of her manager (Harvey Keitel) about the lousy choices in her life. It’s a helluva monologue, the gist of which — elaborated in the next few scenes — lambasts her for putting her family first (particularly the care of her ailing son Aaron, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) instead of making good on the promise of “The Princess Bride” in her career.
Wright’s rep has come bearing a unique offer from Miramount studio head Jeff Green (Danny Huston, brandishing a smile so wide, you half-expect to see canary feathers on his lapel), a contract in which she would potentially sign over her digital likeness to star in whatever films the company pleases for the next two decades. (If “Holy Motors” was an homage to the work of old-school actors, “The Congress” is a manifestation of their projected demise.) The drawn-out first act, in which Wright ultimately decides to be scanned, might easily have been compressed from 50 minutes to a mere five.
The pic then jumps forward 20 years to find Wright retired from acting, yet now the biz’s biggest star, thanks to the successful “Rebel Robot Robin” franchise (the sort of sci-fi role the real Wright never would have taken). Summoned to the Futurological Congress, the actress must pass into the “Restricted Animated Zone” to enter the 100-story hotel where her fellow future folk willfully escape their daily disappointments via chemical-induced hallucinations. For this portion, Folman ditches the cutout style of “Bashir” (or the obvious-fit approach of Asian anime) for a loonier toon look, resembling a cross between Fleischer Studios’ “Betty Boop” shorts and the drug-addled aesthetic of Ralph Bakshi (“Cool World”).
The style of this environment is lively enough, opening with a delightful bit of “Yellow Submarine”-worthy surrealism, though the rules are virtually impossible to follow. It seems Miramount has shifted its business to pharmaceuticals and wants Wright to help unveil its latest offering, but the scene has scarcely been set when assassins and terrorists start wreaking havoc. A debonair stranger named Dylan Truliner (voiced by Jon Hamm) intervenes, revealing himself to be the animator responsible for her climb to the top of a virtual star system to which Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves evidently also belong.
Apart from its general knock against ageism in Hollywood, “The Congress” doesn’t have much insight to offer on the subject. Meanwhile, somewhere in his adaptation, Folman lost the thread that connects this speculative-fiction allegory to our world. Maybe the film is ahead of its time, though it already feels dated: Such digital scanning of actors is already taking place, and if it bothers Folman so much, why not give Wright a greater chance to act, instead of choosing mediocre animation as a means to criticize the industry’s shift away from flesh-and-blood performance?
Beyond the recurring symbol of her son’s red kite, there’s little to connect Wright to this hallucinogenic animated space where disgruntled citizens are free to pass as the persona of their choice, be it Marilyn or Magritte, Grace Jones or Jesus. If this mode of experience were really possible, chances are there would be a lot more Storm Troopers. In fact, the whole place would probably resemble the halls of Comic-Con rather than a scene from Tex Avery’s classic “Hollywood Steps Out” cartoon.