Tuesday, February 09, 2016
ANOMALISA (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015)
To Michael Stone (David Thewlis) everyone looks virtually the same, save for different hairstyles and clothes. More maddeningly, they all sound the same. In the stop-motion animated drama ANOMALISA Michael flies from Los Angeles to Cincinnati to give a presentation about customer service. After making an obligatory call home to his wife and son, Michael arranges to meet an old flame for drinks. She still resents how he left her without a satisfactory answer about their relationship’s end eleven years ago, and Michael doesn’t handle their reunion very well either.
Depressed and lonely he returns to his hotel room when he hears Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her friend in the hallway. They’re in town from Akron to attend Michael’s seminar and are thrilled that he shows interest in them when he knocks on their door. MIchael is really only fascinated with Lisa, who sounds unlike everyone else (Tom Noonan). When he’s able to get her alone and listen to her speak and sing, it’s as though all of his problems have vanished.
The puppets used in ANOMALISA are startlingly life-like yet somehow off in a manner that unsettles. Seams that permit animators to change face plates have not been digitally erased, which emphasize the sentient android quality to the characters. The uniformity of all but Michael and Lisa manifests the psychological horror in the protagonist’s predicament and his potential salvation in finding an anomaly. Something this dour and emotionally naked is unusual for an animated feature, yet in this medium the eerie unreality to the detailed mundanity help to keep it from becoming too uncomfortable to watch versus if it were physically performed by actors. Having originally been staged for the ears rather than the eyes, animation proves to be an inspired way to adapt Charlie Kaufman’s theatrical work with a greater visual element.
The inability to escape oneself or find total relief in someone else runs through Kaufman’s work as a screenwriter, as in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, and writer-director of SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. With ANOMALISA co-director Duke Johnson, Kaufman creates a world in which ordinariness and familiarity suffocate yet are the natural state of things. Michael is an insufferable person, at times more than the film can withstand, yet his plight in pursuit of novelty that eventually fades feels tragic especially with the bombardment of the new in this technological age. There is no shortage of new products to buy or strangers to meet, but what is one left with after the fleeting thrill of the unknown disappears?
ANOMALISA may be more disquieting than anything else in Kaufman’s neurotic body of work, which is why the humor about common aggravations provides brief but welcome breaks from the heaviness. Michael’s difficulties with getting a hotel shower’s water temperature right and failures with his room’s key card are amusing nuisances that can be shared with him even if his mental breakdown can’t. The unimaginative recommendations of what to do in a city, like Cincinnatians suggesting going to the zoo and trying the local chili, may be so funny because they reflect the same responses one could get from anyone in a place. Noonan’s voice work amuses with the deadpan nuance he employs in speaking for the masses. For as critical as ANOMALISA may seem of the indistinct crowd, the anger and disgust directed at them are just deflected feelings of those who own them. For the malcontents and misanthropes, the problem is really in here than out there.