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Film review: "Anomalisa"

Puppet master


After my showing of "Anomalisa," I watched a woman -- clearly displeased with what she'd just seen -- walk over and punch the film's cardboard standee. Her friends muttered their approval, and they continued on their way, angrily discussing how much they regretted their viewing choice. All this to say: "Anomalisa" isn't a film for everyone, but for those on director Charlie Kaufman's characteristically odd wavelength, it's just about perfect.

Nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars this year, "Anomalisa" is a stop-motion film from Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson, and as you might expect from the man who brought us "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Being John Malkovich," it delivers an unusual, cerebral, yet utterly human story. It also serves to emphasize what a great year 2015 was for adult animation (and the film is very much for adults: any parents who see the "animation" designation and assume the film will be appropriate for their kids, it's not).

We meet Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a middle-aged, British, semi-famous motivational speaker on his way to Cincinnati for a lecture engagement. As he makes his way from the airport to the hotel, he makes awkward small talk with the taxi driver, and endures ingratiating hotel employees. All the while, the whir of humanity seems to blend together into a dull hum around him. It's not immediately obvious why that is, but eventually it dawns on us that everyone Michael encounters sounds identical. Every character, besides Michael and one other, is voiced by the actor Tom Noonan, and there's a reason for that. The animation isn't the overtly stylized look we might expect, but an extremely realistic representation of our own world -- and there's a very good reason for that, too.

Michael checks in at the Hotel Fregoli, and after calling his wife and child back home, he makes a pathetic attempt to reconnect with a former flame in the area. Their reunion doesn't go well, but after that spectacularly disastrous meeting, Michael meets Lisa (wonderfully voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh); significantly younger than he is, Lisa's in town specifically to hear Michael speak. Won over by her guileless charm, Michael is instantly infatuated.

Despite how it sounds, "Anomalisa" is not a sweet romance (or a love story at all, really). It's not the story of a quirky young woman who inspires our depressed protagonist to be a better man.

The second film Charlie Kaufman has directed from one of his own scripts (the first being the ambitious "Synecdoche, NY"), it continues the filmmaker's fascination with existential angst and loneliness. We're put in the mindset of our spectacularly narcissistic lead character. Bored with his life and everyone in it, Michael sees Lisa as the key to his happiness; she's the one who can fix everything and save him from the mundanity of his existence.

An expert on customer service techniques, there's an irony to hearing Michael advise his disciples to see each customer as an individual, while to him every person he encounters is virtually interchangeable. He's annoyed by the hyper attentiveness and helpfulness of people around him, yet that's exactly the sort of behavior he encourages in his books and lectures.

"Anomalisa" covers a lot of ground for a film of relatively modest ambitions. It's not as "out there" as Kaufman's films can be, and contains significantly fewer surrealist flights of fancy. Combining dry humor and romance with a more existential examination of depression, masculinity, ego, and questions of what attracts us to another person and why. There's also a fairly graphic puppet sex scene that ranks among the most realistic and tender love scenes I've seen captured on film.

The production design and lighting are dazzling in their realism. Michael's hotel room looks precisely like any hotel room you've ever stayed in -- at once homey and oppressively sterile -- and every detail is just so, with no embellishment. The film's figures are also impressively realistic, save for one detail: the faces of the film's figures are split horizontally just beneath the eyes and around the face, with no attempt to hide the seams. There's a practical reason for this, allowing the animators to switch out eyes and mouths separately to obtain a greater range of expression. But it serves a thematic purpose as well, as it gives the characters the appearance of wearing a mask.

A writer uniquely fascinated with human behavior, Kaufman loves digging around in our minds to see what makes us tick. And just like the audience, the characters themselves seem curious about what lies underneath.