Anomalisa – 2016 (UK)

Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Director: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson

Words: J. Wood

Michael Stone is a middle aged man depressed with the emptiness of his life.  Arriving in Cincinnati to give a speech about Customer Services in a faceless hotel you quickly notice that Michael sees and hears everyone as the same.  Following an ill-fated reunion with an old flame and a loveless conversation with his partner and son he hears and sees Lisa, the one person who stands out to him in the world, and her presence sets off an unprecedented chain of events within Michael.  This all happens in a stop motion animation movie and in some ways the film proves to be Charlie Kaufman’s greatest achievement.

The main thing to say about the film is that the way the film’s animation is done is really something truly special, the likes of which I have not seen before.  For a film so steeped in artifice, where the puppets appear to have a feature where their faces are interchangeable, there is a realism about the film that at times makes you forget that this is in fact an animation.  Some have made comparisons with Team America: World Police simply because both films contain both puppets and a sex scene, yet this is a lazy and churlish comparison to make.  The use of puppets really is a boon when it comes to the surroundings of the film, as the artifice only adds to the blandness of the whole thing, meanwhile there is something deeply unsettling about seeing the same face over and over.  Only Charlie Kaufman would use a rare disorder like The Fregoli Delusion as a key yet unexplained plot point to a film, signposting it only by the name of the hotel, and still make it work as part of the film’s innate mix of the strange and the mundane.

Elsewhere the film is very good at telling a human story, yet with episodes of uncharacteristic weirdness that only serve to enhance the film.  Much of this success comes thanks to the voice work of David Thewlis, who somehow embodies Michael with the dejected and detached qualities without relying on posture that actors playing such characters so often need.  Meanwhile Jennifer Jason Leigh gives a wonderfully complex essaying of Lisa, with her hotchpotch of wariness, excitement, fear and naiveté all coming together to make a perfectly judged character.  It is astonishing to see the progression of these characters throughout the middle act of a film that brings them together in the most human of ways; through sex.  Some will consider the sex scene to be one of the movie’s standouts and although I thought it to be done both effectively and tastefully, when it could so easily have become unintentionally comedic, the sequence before it in which a coy Lisa comes out of her shell with an almost sorrowful rendition of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun is the real moment in which the film’s aims and intentions both became clear and fully worked for me.  Later on in the film there is a nightmarish sequence as Michael’s newly discovered utopia begins to fall away in nightmarish fashion which is the movie’s most memorable moment, yet the fleeting moments shared between Michael, Lisa and Cyndi Lauper are the film’s pinnacle.

It is unfortunate that the sense of momentum that the film gains throughout its middle act cannot be maintained to the conclusion.  The use of Tom Noonan’s voice as everybody else in the film begins as a genuinely unsettling device that creeps up on you until the moment of realization that everyone not only looks the same but speaks with the same voice, with no intonation allowances given for age or sex.  After a while however you begin to relax into the idea and, save for one sequence this quickly lost its ability to unnerve me.  The film takes one or two forays into ill-advised comedic instances, a misunderstanding between a toy shop and a sex shop is something out of a second rate British sitcom whilst jokes coming from fleeting images outside hotel windows do not good comedy make.  Ultimately the film seems unsure of how to wrap its narrative up, and so the final act is not quite as tightly put together as the film has previously been.  While this is still an astonishing cinematic achievement it just feels a touch disappointing that it has not attained the heights it could.

Having carefully considered for some time my thoughts on the film I concluded that Kaufman just did not care enough about the aspects I cared about most.  Put simply he is too icy cold and logical a filmmaker and writer with regards to the human elements of the story.  The film does such a good job at creating Lisa as a redemptive character for Michael, and builds their relationship so well, that I really did not approve of the narrative swirls.  I did not care for the vaguely concocted mental health related path taken when I had grown to care so much and so quickly for the two central characters.  While I understand that this was not the filmmakers’ aim I just found it a shame that so much good character development, the like of which you rarely see in a live action film, went sadly to waste.  There is still no way that I will not recommend Anomalisa highly, for it is a film the likes of which you will not have seen.  I would just suggest going in with tempered expectations and a detached frame of mind as the best course of action.