Film Review – Anomalisa
Idiosyncratic. That is the word that leaps to mind. It might seem like a cop out as a description. It feels a bit like calling something “Unique” when you don’t know what to make of something. But it is the first word that leaps to mind when describing the brilliantly animated film Anomalisa.
Writer and Co-Director Charlie Kauffman has been making a career out of turning terrific and strange concepts into films. Adaptation was a movie that was about trying to make a movie adaptation and busted open narrative rules in the process. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes ideas about memories and turns it into one of the best romantic stories ever. Being John Malkovich, probably his best known work, is a film that’s hard to even describe but manages to examine identity and celebrity with a deft comedic touch.
His new film, Anomalisa, is yet another to add to the list of truly original ideas. Put simply, it’s an adult stop motion animated feature which by itself is almost completely unheard of. Yet what is truly unusual is it ends up being a sad and beautiful look into the search for connection.
The simplest, dismissive description of the plot would be a middle aged puppet has a midlife crisis. But that really undersells what’s happening here. David Thewlis is the voice of Michael Stone, a British author of what looks to be one of those cheesy “keys to success” type of self-help books (this one about Customer Service). He is clearly at the end of his passion for anything. On a trip to Cincinatti to give a speech for his popular seminar he is bored, distracted, and generally without feeling of any kind. This is relayed through the highly impressionistic tool of having every character he meets voiced by the same actor, Tom Noonan. Both men and women, be they a cab drive, a hotel concierge, a bellboy, or even his own wife and child, they all sound the same. His disenfranchisement is palpable. But suddenly he hears one female voice that is different from everyone else. Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa whom he first hears in the hallway outside his hotel room. He instantly feels a connection with her just by virtue of being different. She’s not especially remarkable or extraordinary. But because she’s genuine she’s able to stir something in Michael for which he’s been longing.
Most of the movie takes place in the hotel in long uncut scenes that are utterly mundane. Details of daily life are purposely left in and carefully animated to illustrate how utterly same everything feels to Michael. But things get impressionistic as well. For instance, every character has visible seams on their face that separate the lower cheeks and mouth from the upper half of their face. It shows everyone as artificial all the time, even when they are being genuine. Also, a trip downstairs to meet the hotel management turns decidedly surreal. This is a movie that features puppet sex and stop motion animation of sex toys. Yet it also has many scenes of people simply talking over a drink at the bar.
The care and artistry in the animation can’t be overstated. These characters have soulful eyes. Reflections in windows and mirrors and eyeballs are carefully rendered. Body details such as middle aged paunch belly or characters with different body shapes are all included. Close ups on mouths show incredible detail. Simply on an aesthetic level the animation here is truly astonishing.
Anomalisa may not prove to be for everybody. There might be some that would say, “Oh great, another story about a middle aged white guy feeling ennui for whom we are supposed to sympathize”. When Sideways came out, there were a number of people that pointed out it was such a critical darling because Paul Giamatti‘s schlubby, cranky character reminded balding doughy white film critics of themselves. In fact, it wouldn’t be totally unfair to notice that the tale of a soul-sick middle aged guy stuck in a hotel finding a soulmate with a younger woman was already famously done in Lost in Translation. But these criticisms would be dismissing the added visual prism of the animation itself. The stop-motion figures dealing with these issues is strange and wonderful. There will be some who come away wondering what the hell they just saw. But for those it does hit well, it will leave them with images and thoughts to remember. Anomalisa is one of the best kinds of films, one that is hard to categorize or completely understand.