Review: Anomalisa

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Is there a more singularly unique voice in contemporary cinema than that of Charlie Kaufman? Sure, there are stranger, more idiosyncratic writers and other directors who are more experimental with form. Plenty of filmmakers are instantly identifiable, but so many stand upon the shoulders of those who came before them. It’s not merely a matter of style or a particular mode of storytelling, but an entire perspective on the world. For the past fifteen years, Charlie Kaufman has probed into the human experience in such original ways like few others have, and the fruits of his explorations have been equally astonishing and confounding. Anomalisa is his latest venture, and if it challenges more than it moves, that is an inherent part of the design.

The first thing to know about Anomalisa is that while it’s a stop motion animated film, it is by no means for children. The content of the film, both intellectual and physical, will assure that. Choosing animation as his narrative vessel is an audacious move on Kaufman’s part, since American conventions of the medium tend to dictate a broader audience appeal. Indeed, Anomalisa is highly specific to his tendencies and preoccupations. Kaufman shares a directing credit on the film with Duke Johnson, a stop motion animator who gives the film its slightly offbeat aesthetic.

Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a successful writer flying into Cincinnati to give a talk about his latest book about customer service, “How May I Help You Help Them?” Despite his name brand notoriety and deep admiration from his audience, Michael is deeply troubled by the mundanity of his life. He has a wife and child back in Los Angeles, but he’s lost touch with himself and with those around him, to the point where everyone he encounters seems to have the same voice. This is no exaggeration. Anomalisa consciously gives almost every other character in the film with the same voice, that of actor Tom Noonan. It’s another out of the box artistic choice that immediately informs the film’s identity. Michael is spending the night at the lavishly named Fregoli hotel, and as he practices his speech, he’s suddenly overcome by the impulse to contact an old flame. He meets her at the hotel bar, but it’s quickly clear their shared history and personal hangups will interfere with reconnecting. Later that night, Michael suddenly hears a voice unlike any he’s heard before. In a neighboring room, he meets a woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and in coming to know her, he realizes his outlook on life may change permanently.

True to Charlie Kaufman form, the conceptual framework of Anomalisa begins with the ordinary, until the surrealistic edges begin creeping their way in. The pedestrian flows of life have been explored in cinema time and again, but Kaufman simply uses these themes as a jumping off point. The world of customer service is an ideal vehicle for Kaufman here, as the opening scenes of the film illustrate how bored Michael is with the obligatory polite people he encounters. David Thewlis might not be the first candidate one would think of as a lead for Anomalisa, but he turns out to be an inspired casting choice, employing his deeply thoughtful line delivery throughout. Jennifer Jason Leigh matches him, and the budding romance between Michael and Lisa carries compelling consequences as it develops. Kaufman’s writing is loaded with subtext, but it rarely feels heady, often displaying a knack for touching on disarmingly humorous moments.

The stop motion animation that characterizes Anomalisa feels like it has no precedent. Several of the textures and fabrics employed in the film appear to have been taken from real life, but the appearance of the human characters is slightly a touch off from reality. This doesn’t mean the puppets fail to express emotion, however. In the few closeups the film affords, one can even see reflections in the eyes of Michael and Lisa. Further, Anomalisa isn’t shy about having the characters bare all of their humanity, including nudity. Of course, the intention isn’t a sensual one, but rather to display the characters with all of their physical imperfections. In this way, they actually feel far more human than most animated avatars. Anomalisa might be a little more cinematically limited because of the nature of its execution, but a few standout moments prevail, particularly in the second half. It’s in these scenes that the film becomes difficult and even obtuse about its intentions. If there is a certainty about Anomalisa it’s this: Charlie Kaufman’s growth as a filmmaker has fostered fewer concrete conclusions about our collective experience and instead, more nebulous inquiries. Anomalisa makes the case that perhaps it is Kaufman’s world, and we’re just living in it.

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~ by romancinema on January 2, 2016.

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