Anomalisa (2016) Review

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

(Originally written for Youtube Jan. 4 2016)

First review of the New Year and we’re starting it off with a Carlie Kaufman flick. Now, that’s how we like to do it. If you only know one screenwriter by name to name-drop in conversations where you want to look smart, this is the one. And, if you don’t recognize the name, you might recognize some of the films this guy has written; the two most famous of which are Being John Malkovich and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; although his best is probably his last film; Synecdoche, New York. This guy is one of the most talented screenwriters today writing some of the most high-concept, intricate, self-referential…just plain smart movies of the past twenty years. Kaufman plays with post-modernism and the meta-narrative forms of film completely unlike every other working film-maker today; and you should always expect to leave one of his films with your mind blown wide open.

But it’s not all, “oh, look how smart these movies are” either; because Kaufman’s movies also deal with so much emotional weight like feelings of heartbreak, identity, obsession, and inadequacy in incredibly deep and nuanced ways. And this profound and deep understanding of pathos and love and sadness is what lies at the heart of Kaufman’s newest film, Anomalisa.

The film follows, and is from the perspective of Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis, a famous motivational speaker for customer service reps, who lives in a world where everybody except him is the same. Same voice, same face, and completely unremarkable. That is until a conference in Cincinnati where Stone meets and immediately becomes obsessed with Lisa; the only other person in the world, including Stone’s own wife and kids; that looks and sounds any different.

And, that’s about it. It’s a small film, with only two characters and one real setting; and describing it as boy-meets-girl wouldn’t be wrong. But this film strikes deep to the core of its conceit; and does so with a poignancy and, surrealness that turns the concept of the whole thing into a feeling.

In any other movie, everything about Michael Stone would suggest a standard manic-pixie-dream-girl plot. His ennui and boredom with the other people and world around him; his charming presentation of mental instability, and plain relatable straight-white-maleness would turn Stone into romantic hero. But this isn’t any other movie: it’s a Charlie Kaufman film, and for fear of spoiling anything; I’ll just add that this is the same guy who wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and leave that at that.

The other main character is Lisa herself, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh; who manages to give the character a personality and reality despite the oppressive perception of how Michael Stone sees her. She’s also in town for the convention, there to see Stone, in fact; and while she becomes wrapped up in him seeing her; we never completely lose track of Lisa as a person unto herself, with her own insecurities and faults.

The only other actor in the entire film is Tom Noonan, who voices everybody else. And his performance is remarkably unremarkable. He just has such a plain, level, no frills voice that sounds boring the second after you hear it. And I don’t mean that as an insult, as it’s exactly what this movie needs.

Anomalia is done entirely in stop motion with puppets, and features one of the best uses of stop motion technique I’ve ever seen in a film. These puppets are incredibly detailed, down to the genitals, and even blinking and breathing; and Michael and Lisa each have their own little fidgets and patterns that add that last little ounce of humanity; but despite how human they act, they had to be puppets. The film’s use of animation quickly erases all notions that it might be gimmick by seamlessly using the stop-motion as a metaphor, and the medium becomes essential to the surreal atmosphere, characters, and plot.

It’s a film that, despite the puppets, is deeply human, and presents an intricate study of loneliness, obsession, connection, and myopia. Anomalisa is cynical, pulling no punches when it comes to mistaking narcissism for romance, but displays a raw humanity and sincerity, that emotionally anchors it. Anomalisa will probably break your heart, and you might need some time to find out exactly why.