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ANOMALISA (2015) review

January 7, 2016

anomalisaposter  

written by: Charlie Kaufman
produced by: Rosa Tran, Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman & Dino Stamatopoulos directed by: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
rating: R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language)
runtime: 90 min.
U.S. release date: December 30, 2015 (limited) and January 8, 2016 (wide) 

 

What is most fascinating about “Anomalisa” is how it perfectly captures human complexities and idiosyncrasies, yet all its characters and the world in which they inhabit are hand-made. Literally. This humorous and introspective drama, co-directed by screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, is a stop-motion animation feature consisting of puppets created by 3D printers, all of which are voiced by three talented actors. The story, written by Kaufman years ago, follows successful author and public speaker Michael Stone (David Thewlis), on a business trip to Cincinnati for a conference to talk about great customer service skills – such as talking on the phone with a smile in your voice, using empathy and compassion and really listening and connecting with your client. However, he implements none of this attributes in real life and shows consistent disdain for the people he encounters during his travels, something that many viewers will easily relate to.

He can’t stand the way everyone around him (all voiced by the masterfully monotone Tom Noonan) has to over-explain everything and go on and on about such mundane subjects in his conversations with them. The smacking sounds people make while eating and the visuals of food dangling from their mouths bother him to no end. Michael is judgmental, manipulative and miserable and yet very relatable. He’s also incredibly lonely. Struggling to find and connect with someone who is different and unique than everyone around him.

Then he runs into Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a call center team lead in town for his appearance. He is immediately taken by her and despite some awkwardness, the two get along nicely – yet the odd occurrences Michael experiences in the hotel along with his own pet peeves may jeopardize any future possibilities of happiness.  

 

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While Michael comes across as a typically flawed and troubled Kaufman character, he is undeniably someone who is interesting to follow. Like many characters that Kaufman has created in his previous films, it feels like he’s holding a mirror up to the audience, providing us with a character we may not like to admit we are like in Michael. Both Michael and Lisa are fully realized – first by Kaufman and then by Thewlis and Jason Leigh – as characters we connect to in one way or another. Characters that feel like us or people we know.

So, in an uncanny manner, they come across as truly real people – yet they’re puppets, which provides a visually fascinating aspect to the film. The puppetry design adds an artistic element to the film that has an almost dreamlike quality to it as well as a somewhat detached feel that reminds us something is not quite right.

The unique look of “Anomalisa” might be explained by the limited budget the directors had to work with, but it’s obviously a deliberate choice too. While other stop-motion animation studios will work to smooth out edges and remove lines on their figures, Kaufman and Johnson have chosen to go with a look that shows the seams on these puppets. It’s especially noticeable on the character’s faces, where we see the lines that connect the pieces that create their look. It’s a visual that takes some getting used to, but it also parallels the disconnect that Kaufman emphasizes in his screenplay.

Rather than seeing the strings like on the puppets of “Team America: World Police”, we see the cracks which serve to accentuate the frailty and anxieties of the film’s lead character. It winds up being a wholly original look that adds a wonderful peculiarity to Kaufman’s look at human needs, behavior and perception.  

 

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When Michael descends into something of a Kafka-esque nightmare realm, his look and design breaks apart just as his psychological state unravels. This was fascinating, but it’s never fully explored to its potential. It felt like the story was venturing into a welcome sci-fi realm, but instead it navigates into something strange and darkly humorous winds up being satisfying and entertaining.

For those moviegoers who still ignorantly believe that animation features are cartoons and should be viewed by children – you’d be surprised, they’re out there – this film will blow that perception away. Here we watch a stop-motion character go through bathroom routines, visit a sex toy shop and administer oral sex on another character. Some of that may be awkward for viewers, but if you’re already hooked into this world that has been presented, it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

Granted, Kaufman has an acquired taste, something anyone who’s seen his previous films like “Being John Malkovich”, “Adaptation” and “Synecdoche, New York”, should expect. “Anomalisa” remains true to his interests in investigating humanity, reliving into neuroses and bad habits offering a chance to delve into his character’s psyches.

The film isn’t necessarily profound, but it’s nevertheless an intriguing effort and quite masterful on a technical level. It’s hard to say how such a film will be received by audiences (some may have problems with puppet sex, I suppose), since it feels like it caters to Kaufman devotees. 

“Anomalisa” is getting a NY/LA release at the end of December for awards consideration and then will become more available sometime in January. If you’re curious for a different approach to animation features, this is definitely one that will open your horizons.  

 

anomalisa  

RATING: ***

 

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