Two half-realized visions of near-future horrors don’t add up to much of a whole in “The Congress,” Ari Folman’s mixture of live action and animation that follows his widely praised “Waltz With Bashir.” Where that movie used animation for a serious memoir about the filmmaker’s wartime experiences, this one pairs the story of an aging actress (Robin Wright, playing herself) with a riff on Stanisław Lem’s sci-fi satire “The Futurological Congress.” The film is ambitious and heartfelt, with pressing concerns about the virtualization and fantasization of reality. But it’s a blunder, one interesting mostly for what it might have been.
The heroine is a fictionalized version of Wright, who had a huge hit at the start of her career (“The Princess Bride”) and then mostly insisted on starring in serious, often dark dramas instead of cashing in with Hollywood fluff. Here, Wright is viewed as damaged goods by the industry, a star who burned out due to poor career and personal choices. Now in her mid-40s, she’s all but unemployable, raising two children by herself. One of them, Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has a disease that will likely make him blind and deaf by adulthood.
A studio head (Danny Huston) makes Wright and her agent (Harvey Keitel) a terrible but irresistible offer: She will sell her claim on “Robin Wright” for 20 years, letting the studio scan her to create a computer-generated actress; the flesh-and-blood woman will never act again, but her forever-young avatar will play any role the studio assigns her.
This is not a new premise (Jennifer Egan’s fine 2001 novel “Look at Me” envisioned it, as did the lousy 2002 film “S1m0ne”), but we’re at the point now where it must be considered seriously. Sadly, this isn’t the film to do that, as becomes clear in the scanning scene, which half-wittedly imagines how technicians extract the building blocks of Wright’s persona with the help of an impromptu, implausible assist by her agent.
Cut to 20 years later, when Wright is summoned to the ill-explained Congress, some kind of business event held in “a restricted animated zone”: Those who enter take a drug that makes them experience the world as a cartoon, one whose connection to physical reality is so tenuous they can choose to be Marilyn Monroe or John Wayne if they wish. “Movies are old news,” announce the event’s overseers, who now want Wright to renew her contract by turning her computerized persona into a chemical one — a drug that lets fans become the star instead of just watching her.
The plot grows complicated quickly, but boils down to an escape plan in which the animator who has controlled Wright’s CGI version for two decades (Jon Hamm, whose animated character looks like a sad-eyed Adrien Brody) helps the real one break away from this mass hallucination to search for Aaron.
References to other films (including, oddly, “Dr. Strangelove”) pile up here, but Folman avoids nods toward “The Matrix” or any of the other Hollywood head-trips that dramatized this kind of illusory-reality vision more convincingly. His crude style of animation, which elicits unflattering comparisons ranging from 1920s Fleischer Studios to “The Triplets of Belleville,” makes it difficult to spend well over an hour in this world, watching a badly drawn Wright struggle through the multiple layers of an experience we don’t believe in.
Replacing her aging but potently expressive face with a line-drawn caricature that barely resembles her, Folman robs the actress of her tools even more callously than the fictional studio boss, asking her to carry the film using only her voice. She can’t do it, and why should we expect her to? Wright has judiciously used her three decades in front of cameras to learn how her entire body creates a performance. In attempting to identify with a woman aging out of Tinseltown’s good graces, Folman has trivialized her art.
DeFore is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At West End Cinema. Contains language, cartoon nudity and cartoon violence. 122 minutes.