Anomalisa Dir. Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

[Paramount Pictures; 2015]

Styles: Drama, animation
Others: Being John Malkovich, Surviving Life, The Bigger Picture

Charlie Kaufman’s latest film, Anomalisa (co-directed with Duke Johnson), delivers his signature touch of meta-cinema, absurdity, and cynicism towards human nature. In the film, based on Kaufman’s 2005 radio play of the same name, a graying motivational speaker, Michael Stone, played by David Thewlis, struggles to find a true emotional connection. Through Stone’s eyes, everyone, including his wife and son exhibit the same non-descript features of a young white man voiced by Tom Noonan. Everyone including his wife and son are as universally plain as the stick figure on a crosswalk light. In spite of his profession, urging customer service professionals to see each client as an individual, it’s clear that he is really just trying to convince himself. Instead he is cursed with a cognitive condition, known as Fregoli disorder in which one perceives that everyone is the same person.

Not coincidentally, Anomalisa is set in the fictional Fregoli hotel in Cincinnati where Stone is giving a lecture. To his shock and joy, he encounters a woman, Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose voice and face manages to cut through the homogeneity of all other people. Lisa’s distinctness assures him that she must be the one and only person who can save him from despair. However, as bizarre as Stone’s disorder may seem, his experience is not uncommon. With technology’s power to provide potential dates at the swipe of a finger, real personal connections are as easy and difficult to find as ever. Instead of finding the beauty in each person, faces tend to average out into one in which everyone is different but the same.

Kaufman’s script and Thewlis, Leigh, and Noonan’s voice performances stand alone in bringing out the deeply human experience in the pedestrian yet alien world of the film, but the medium of animation amplifies the surrealness of it all. Exquisitely crafted sets immediately recall familiar environments from life, but they are definitely not places we can physically inhabit. Michael Stone’s hotel room for example, is accurately made to a tee. From the moment we see the room we already know the feel of the synthetic hotel carpet, and expect to see the typical marble floors in the bathroom. Things are utterly familiar and alien at once.

The countenance of the puppets also establishes the dreamlike quality of the film. They lead the audience into the uncanny valley; viewers are forced to relate to a strange breed of creature that is both inanimate and very much alive. While many people are put off by the unnatural quality of humanoid products of digital descent such as those in the online game Second Life, the characters in Anomalisa resist the automaton quality of the former. Because of the inherently hand-made process of stop-animation, the movements exhibit an organic imperfection that feels human in spite of being partly constructed by a 3D printer. The acting by the animators weaves between caricatured movements and extraordinarily life-like gestures in a way that lulls the viewer into the world in one moment and breaks the fourth wall in the next. For example, in the scene in which Michael Stone stumbles through the hotel hallway to find the origin of the voice he hears, which turns out to be Lisa’s, his body jolts and tumbles with an awkward gravity that would be impossible with live actors, thus amplifying the chaos of the scene. By contrast, the love scene is so smoothly animated, it as if the puppets have been brought to life through a Pygmalion miracle. It is in shots like this that the viewer forget they are watching puppets and become absorbed by the world.

However, putting the uniqueness of medium aside, Anomalisa’s essential integrity lies in the excellence of the storytelling and its ability to use any and all means to relate to its audience. Because of this freedom, the film is unlike anything the box office has seen in recent memory. It resists categories. Compared to most live-action dramas, it is as cinematic in terms of its sophisticated script, acting, camera, and lighting, but the use of puppets proclaim its artifice in a way that sets it apart from even motion-capture animated characters seen in fantasy films like Avatar. It also stands alone among most animated features, which typically lean towards caricature and stylized worlds. Instead it seems to reside more in the camp of experimental narrative films such as those by Jan Svankmajer who also incorporates animation to tell harrowing stories about human existence in films such as Alice and Surviving Life. Both leave us in an emotionally charged eerie space that feels like altered reality.

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