If you take a philosophy class in college you are guaranteed to meet one specific type of bastard: That Guy who thinks he's blowing your mind. He might be a nice enough guy, but he lacks self awareness, and he can't tell when he's actually being impressive and when he's just being a blowhard. I don't think anyone likes That Guy, but as a person who took a lot of philosophy classes I really hated That Guy, because I had to deal with him a lot. Every time his train of thought would start wandering, or he would expound at great length on some idea that was obvious, or he would circle back to underline a point we'd already grasped, I would sit in my chair and seethe.
The Congress is directed by That Guy.
The Congress is about an actress who is getting close to aging out of Hollywood - played by a thinly fictionalized Robin Wright - who gets persuaded to let the movie studio scan her image into a computer and then let the wholly digital version take over for her on the silver screen. Eventually, the scanning technology gets pushed too far, and everyone has the option of living inside the computer, where they can morph into whatever animated fantasy they want. Obviously, the film touches on a lot of themes, ranging from direct feminist critiques of our media companies to more abstract questions about the nature of fantasy versus reality. But it explores all of those themes clumsily.
For example, the first plot - and there definitely are two plots; there isn't much direct overlap between the two sections - isn't interested in actually exploring how this new digital technology would change movie making. It's just treated as a given that the movies that will be churned out with the fake Robin will be soulless. There's an extent to which that's fair, but I don't think there's very much of Sandra Bullock's actual body in Gravity, but I still think she gave a good performance in a good movie. Sure, I understand that Andy Serkis' nuanced performance as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is kind of an outlier in big budget CGI blockbusters - but it does prove that such a thing is possible. There's an interesting critique to be made here, but The Congress is too hamfisted to make it.
The second plot - the one that's shades of A Brave New World - is similarly underwhelming. The actual mechanism by which people live all digital lives is never explained, but that doesn't matter, because it's clearly meant to be a metaphor. But it's a boring metaphor. I get it, we shouldn't want to live in the Matrix; we should want to live in the real world. even if that means dealing with unpleasant problems directly.
The Congress explicitly talks about how anti-depressants are a form of self denial, and it points out how plastic surgery is a way of lying about the inevitabilities of aging. Even if I didn't think those arguments were banal I still wouldn't be persuaded. It's easy to judge people for the choices they make, but you don't always know their circumstances or their thought process. I'm not arguing in favor of pills or surgeries, mind you; I'm just saying that they aren't always proof that someone is incapable of dealing with life on it's own terms. It probably varies from person to person, but the Congress isn't subtle enough to see that.
Deep down I know that the reason why That Guy bugged me so much in my college days was because I was secretly worried that I was someone else's version of That Guy. That applies to the Congress, too. I can see a lot of myself in this movie. I, too, wish that Hollywood was less of a boys club, and that actresses were allowed to age as gracefully as actors are. I, too, love animation, especially when it uses it's inherent ability to blend the fantastic with the plausible as a way of twisting reality into a funhouse mirror. I, too, have concerns about the balance people are striking between their digital selves and their real selves. But I try to view those problems with some nuance, and I don't like to act like I'm blowing someone's mind when I talk about them. Unfortunately, The Congress lacks that nuance, and it touts it's ideas with an aggressiveness that it's ideas can't support.
But I will give it this: at least it was prettier to look at than That Guy from college.
Winner: The Cat