TOH's interview with Ari Folman is here.
This provides one of the film’s small pleasures, spotting a cubist-looking Picasso, Yoko Ono, Frida Kahlo, Mohammad Ali, Jesus, Naomi Campbell, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra. There’s also a funny Tom Cruise character with a never-ending gleam who really seems to be Tom Cruise rather than a hallucination or transmigration or whatever you call it. (In the funniest moment of the Q&A afterwards, someone asked Folman if he had to get permission from Cruise and he replied, “Did you see Tom Cruise in the film? I didn’t. I’m serious, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And yet the actor who voices “Tom Cruise” gets a credit on IMDB.)
There also seem to be references to different animation histories, from the Fleischer Bros (Betty Boop) to Dr. Seuss, Ralph Bakshi and “Futurama,” as well as to such movies as “Dr. Strangelove,” with Wright riding the bomb a la Slim Pickens. And that says a lot about “Congress:” It’s a big ambitious mashup of ideas and styles. But for the most part it leaves its audience befuddled rather than bedazzled.
There isn’t much of a point trying to further describe the plot, which becomes more and more difficult to parse and/or remember. Wright makes a speech with integrity that doesn’t go down well and is hauled off stage by tough guys. An assassin shoots the main dude. Then Wright meets her animator, a mellow guy named Dylan Truliner who walks like Adrian Brody and talks like Don Draper (Jon Hamm is his voice), and who has loved her these past 20 years. Truliner has a pill he’s been saving that will release the taker back to the other world – like the Nazis cyanide pills hidden inside their teeth. Wright asks for it so that she can find her kids, or at least her son Aaron, who has a degenerative disease. She takes the pill, and leaves. Or something like that. Then she sees Paul Giamatti again. Did I mention Paul Giamatti? He plays Aaron’s doctor, Aaron who has a degenerative disease, and is obsessed with the Wright Brothers and with flying a kite into a passenger jet. Giamatti has a very large beard, and you will have a large question mark in your mind wondering why he took this small role. Like the rest of the project, it must have looked good on paper.
The film is based on Stanislaw Lem’s “The Futurological Congress,” which Folman read as a teenager. In the Q&A after the screening, the director said that he felt lucky that he could adapt one of his heroes. But he also sounded weary, like a man who knew he had bitten off more than it turned out he could chew. Making the film was an arduous 4-year journey, he said, requiring six animation studios in six European investor countries. Folman and his production designer David Polonsky had tried to go with the cutout animation that made “Waltz for Bashir” so memorable but “basically it was a nightmare.” They switched to classical animation, he said, with which they had no experience, and there were problems. “The craftsmanship is tough as hell. You have to be either stupid or brave to do it, and probably both.”
It seems Folman and Polonsky were a little of both. Their film is exuberant and funny at times, and not without its visual wonders, but it gets lost in its excesses. And if there are bigger ideas at play, they remain obscured. “The Congress” has the feel of a project the makers felt would be a work of some genius. What it is is overambitious.