Anomalisa (2015) / Animation-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Running Time: 90 min.
Cast (voices): David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
Director: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman (based on his play)
Review published December 31, 2015
Celebrated screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) returns to theaters for the first time since 2008's Synecdoche New York with another unique, often brilliant work, Anomalisa, based on his 'sound play' that he wrote in 2005 for Carter Burwell's Theater of the New Ear under the pen name of Francis Fregoli. A Kickstarter campaign was begun to turn the play into a short film, and after securing nearly a half-million dollars in funds, a film production company picked up the rest of the money needed, and expanded the project to become a full-length feature.
The main character is unhappily married, middle-aged self-help author and occupational speaker Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis, The Theory of Everything), who has traveled for a one-day stay in Cincinnati in order to deliver a lecture at a convention for those in the customer service industry. Michael is bored, lonely, and sad; he isn't someone who particularly likes being around other people, and yet he also can't seem to tolerate having to be left alone with his own thoughts. Ironic that he has become an expert in giving good customer service when those who follow what he preaches get on his every nerve, but he hates himself even more, and yet he can't escape those feelings. During his stay at an upscale hotel, he tries to get reacquainted with an ex-lover with whom he spurned severely, and proceeds to make matters worse in his attempts to make them better. Then he meets a couple of women who are there to see his speech, including Lisa (Leigh, The Hateful Eight), a lonely younger woman who seems different than just about anyone else Michael has met.
Anomalisa is a highly artistic and intellectual work, and, as such, will likely not be to every taste, as it isn't the sort of thing that will make complete sense if taken at face value. Part of the approach to tackle the main themes of the story comes through the use of one voice actor, Tom Noonan (Eight Legged Freaks, Knockaround Guys), to voice every single character in the film other than Michael and Lisa, and they all seem to have the same facial structure, which is meant to further the feeling in Michael's life that everyone he meets is basically all the same, and which makes Lisa all the more refreshing when he does encounter her - she is, literally, different than anyone he's met of late. The name of the hotel, as well as the pen name Kaufmann used for his play, 'Fregoli', comes from the name of a delusion in which the person afflicted thinks that different people are the same person in disguise. Even the style of animation is ingenious, using 3D printer technology for its character designs, a technology of replication that fits into this unique world in which everything seems to be a copy of something real.
It's in this world that Michael exists -- a world of monotony and sameness -- where people talk just to talk, without having anything new, interesting or vital to say. This is why Michael becomes so enamored of Lisa, a breath of fresh air in this claustrophobic universe of uniformity, though in actual fact, the film eventually points out, that too may also be its own form of allusion. Lisa is, underneath it all, just another person, as capable of producing the kind of idle chatter to pass the time as the cab driver who takes Michael to the hotel, or the bellhop who guides him to the room. If seeing everyone in the world as the same is one form of delusion, then surely seeing one person among the many as completely different -- an anomaly -- could also be its own form of delusion. We fall in love with those with whom we find special, but perhaps love is also part of that delusion that we've found someone different that the rest that we want to hold on to, until they finally are seen as who they truly are, just the same as the rest of us, deep down.
If you're going in to Anomalisa because someone tells you its great, or wonderful, or hilarious, or heartbreaking, you're probably already going into the film with the wrong mindset. It's a movie that may not be fully appreciated on first watch, especially if you're expecting to be blown away intellectually, emotionally, or to laugh your butt off. It's not a tearjerker, but it is painfully depressing in its cynical depiction of love, and it's not a knee-slapper, but it is form of raw, insecure comedy, just one that is brutal and cleverly incisive. The animation style is, quite deliberately, creepy and off-putting, residing deep in that 'uncanny valley' where people are turned off by realistic representations of humanity that are just a little off. This is a very low-key, often surreal work, full of very intimate, vulnerable moments that leave a trail of breadcrumbs that, should you choose to follow them, might say something profound for those who want to dig deeper at the odd things that occur within the course of the story. Once you do arrive at the end of that trail, it is then that you might finally agree that Anomalisa is a truly remarkable film. Even if you never get there, regardless of your take-away from it, one thing will still be abundantly clear: Charlie Kaufman is definitely not a voice of sameness in the world of cinema.
©2015 Vince Leo