Film Review: Anomalisa

Directors: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

15 | 1h 30min | Animation, Comedy, Drama | 11 March 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Charlie Kaufman (writer of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), and Duke Johnson’s new film Anomalisa originally started out as a sound play written by Kaufman as part of composer Carter Burwell’s ‘Theatre of the New Ear’ project from 2005, and has finally made its way to the screen as a film that uses stop-motion animated puppets to tell its story. This approach raised eyebrows given the arduous, old-school nature of the filmmaking, plus the adult content (this is not for kids) and the fact that it took a Kickstarter drive to help finish it off.

For all the complicated nature of its production, Anomalisa is actually very much a typical Kaufman film, in that the same old concerns are here: lonely and misanthropic people fumbling around the corners of their lives, looking for connections and affirmations, with a few good drops of droll humour and eccentricity added to the mix. It is not even the first Kaufman film to feature a very elaborate and idiosyncratic aesthetic or design concept: check his 2008 directorial debut Synecdoche, New York; with its super-postmodern conceit that the main character would get lost in a huge reconstruction of New York City in the pursuit of authenticity. But, just as with that film, Anomalisa manages to make the concept more than a gimmick: it helps tell its bittersweet, funny story and give you the feels, even if all we have here is the same kind of story Kaufman has been telling us all along.

Anomalisa is the story of one night in the life of Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis, with he and everyone else voicing stop motion puppets in a world 1/6th size of reality), who is suffering from the highly ironic affliction of being a well-regarded customer services motivational author who is suffering through a long-running period of crippling self-doubt and ennui.  Arriving in Cincinnati to address a customer service industry audience at the hotel he is booked into, the weight of Michael’s failed marriage and a long-regretted romantic break-up drive him into the arms of a kind-hearted but maybe over-trusting fan called Lisa (Synecdoche’s Jennifer Jason Leigh). Needless to say, the fact that this a Kaufman film means that the epiphany both eventually reach does not exactly involve a smooth ride or result in love conquering all. Much awkwardness and fumbling – including some eye-opening puppet sex -and increasing blurring of reality and fiction ensues. Or should that be a double-blurring of reality and fiction, given we are already looking at a weirdly lifelike recreation in puppet form of a man himself suffering from reality slippage?

The painstakingly detailed puppets and their intricate movements effectively combine with the voice work of the cast to give the story and characters emotional punch, especially once the distancing effect begins to wear off.  At the same time, the eerie stop motion effect and the unpolished nature of the puppets (they area a little threadbare, and the filmmakers deliberately left the seams on the faces of Michael, Lisa and other characters to set the animation apart from typical stop-motion fare) give the film an otherworldly vibe that never goes away entirely. It also makes the main characters seem very fragile, like they could fall apart, or have their strings cut. It is possible that this is a visualisation of a full-scale emotional breakdown. Certainly Michael’s perspective is skewed by his deep depression: the fact that every character sounds the same (all the characters bar Lisa and Michael are voiced by Tom Noonan) is a sure sign he is not on a healthy path. The hotel he checks into is called the Fregoli; Fregoli being the name of a complex where a person sees every other individual as looking and sounding the same. Definitely a “Kaufmanesque” complex if ever there was one.

It is a difficult spot the filmmakers are aiming for: trying to make these bodies on screen seem real through very precise movements of limbs and eyes, attempting to make them appear soulful and expressive, while also not making the thing match reality so much that it all comes off as gimmicky or irrelevant. But they manage it. What really helps sell the emotional reality is the offscreen cast: with Thewlis and Leigh effective at playing the sort of fragile characters that Kaufman always populates his film worlds with, and Noonan manages to walk the line between making each character he is voicing different but also still unnervingly similar to everyone who came before. The filmmakers have stated that, when filming, at most they could aim for two seconds of footage per animator per day on a good day, given the challenge of going back to using one of cinema’s oldest visual effects trick. It was time well spent.

Film Review: Anomalisa
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