It’s impressive that Israeli writer-director Ari Folman offers so much freshly provocative speculation on digitally rendered actors in “The Congress,” a half-live-action, half-animated headtrip that throws Robin Wright into a dizzying showbiz paradigm shift. Folman, director of the animated 2008 Beirut war memoir “Waltz with Bashir,” adapted his new film from a novel by Polish sci-fi author Stanislaw Lem (“Solaris”). But Lem’s story is merely a springboard for Folman’s wildly sprawling meditations on what the advent of virtual performance means — for artistic integrity, creative spirit, celebrity culture, human identity, even our hold on reality.
Wright stars as herself, or a close approximation: an actress in her mid-40s first seen being lectured by her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), for all her iffy career and life choices. Al urges her to take Miramount Studios’ offer to scan her likeness and buy the exclusive lifetime rights. Her professional clock wound down a while ago, and Al doesn’t want to hear any more about her anxieties or her ailing adolescent son (Kodi Smit-McPhee, “Let Me In”). (Wright’s digs next to an airport runway apparently aren’t a down-on-her-luck indicator, just an opportunity for some jets-and-kites metaphorical contrasting of technology and soul.)
Wright cries, resists, relents. In a clever touch, she pauses on her way down the studio corridor to gaze silently at her decades-younger image on a poster. “I need Buttercup from ‘The Princess Bride,’” Danny Huston’s effectively hardball exec tells her. “Jenny from ‘Forrest Gump.’ I don’t need you.”
A scanning sequence inside a cavernous strobe-globe encapsulates the movie’s conceptual strengths and dramatic unevenness. The film-crew resume of the technician in charge is a nice reveal. So is Keitel’s lengthy control-booth monologue about what makes Wright and Al’s professional relationship tick, a speech intended to make her cry for the scanner. But as for an old Bronx tale meant to make her laugh – oy.
At the 45-minute mark, the film jumps ahead 20 years, and into animation. The studio’s virtual-being ambitions have by now given rise to Abrahama City, a sort of real-life Toontown on the edge of the desert. Sexagenarian Wright snorts a chemical she’s handed at the border and is instantly animated, just like the cracked resort surrounding her. (The rendering is rough but stoner-serviceable in a “Heavy Metal” way.) Wright’s pimped-out likeness has made so many gazillions for the studio, they figure it’s worth having her at their big cultural confab. But she’s horrified by plans they announce to push beyond artificially crafted movie experiences. Their pharmaceutical department (!) has figured out how to reduce an actor to a chemical substance. Entertainment will be consumed in a very literal sense, with the masses eating or drinking a celebrity and imagining what they will.
A lovestruck computer animator (Jon Hamm) who’s overseen Wright’s greatest digi-roles ends up being her guide through a second fast-forward, by which point almost the whole of society has morphed into a peace-love-dope fantasia of cultural caricatures. You’ll feel the echoes of “The Matrix” and other dystopias in all of this, particularly when Wright is reunited with an old doctor friend (Paul Giamatti) in the real world. But hearing Folman’s characters talk about chemically transmitting “story data” straight to the subconscious? That’s got a completely original ring to it.