Saturday, December 12, 2015


 4 / 5 

Why, you wonder for a while, does Anomalisa need to be animated?  In its opening scenes, the movie aims for such verisimilitude that the painstaking, finely detailed work of stop-motion animation seems like it's more of a technical trick than a necessary artistic choice.

Anomalisa is a small, sad and lovely story about the ways we are disconnected from others, and it does not seem, at first, to stretch the boundaries of reality in overt ways that would require animation: There are no talking candles, flying carpets or singing animals.

There is just lonely, middle-aged Michael Stone and, before Lisa comes along, there is Everyone Else.  Michael's voice is provided by the actor David Thewlis, while an actor named Tom Noonan plays Everyone Else.  And by that, I mean, Tom Noonan is literally everyone else, from Michael's wife, Donna; to his son, Henry; to the front-desk clerk at the hotel, to the waitress in the restaurant, to the wounded ex-girlfriend Michael thinks it might be a good idea to call when a business trip takes him to Cincinnati.

Michael is middle-aged, weary, sad about the choices he's made.  Now he feels dislocated in a city he doesn't know, isolated in a bland upscale hotel where everything looks the same.  And just about the time we begin realizing just how disillusioned and disappointed Michael is, we also start to realize why filmmaker Charlie Kaufman wanted to make Anomalisa as an animated film.

The movie presents the world exactly as Michael sees it: He is, in ways both small and large, selfish and self-centered, as perhaps most of us are, and everyone else seems blandly the same.  They look alike, they sound alike, and thanks to the minor artistic miracles of the film, they are the same.

Charlie Kaufman wrote and co-directed the film (with Duke Johnson), and he has surprised us with this sort of reality bending before.  Think about movies like Being John Malkovich, in which everybody took on the countenance of the esteemed actor, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which memories were literally erased.

Kaufman's movies proceed from the notion that we all experience a certain baseline reality, which is what we share with others in what we tacitly agree is our mutual world.  But that physical world is, of course, limited.  The metaphysical mind is not.  The strange power of the mind makes us do things, see things, say things, experience things, react to things that, quite possibly, only we can see.  The body can move through life, but the mind can soar through it -- forward, backward, side to side, swirling in and around itself, searching for what it needs.

The droning, monotonous voices, the sameness of all the faces are just about to overwhelm Michael, who could well be a relative of Bill Murray's sad-sack actor in Lost in Translation, with which Anomalisa also shares its hollow, lonely mood and its hotel setting.  The two films are cousins: similar, but not alike.

Just as Michael imagines that he couldn't feel more disconnected from the sameness of everyone else, he meets Lisa.  It is her tremulous, fragile voice he notices first (it's provided by Jennifer Jason Leigh), before he ever sees he tender, wounded face.  Michael, who might not be the most faithful husband in movie history, is attracted to her.  He wants Lisa to come to his room.  He wants to have sex with her.  She, in turn, has trouble believing that he is interested in her.

They do have sex, and for some the defining feature of Anomalisa may be that it's the movie in which puppets engage in full-frontal sex. But it's also the movie in which puppets provide more insight into humanity than most live-action movies, in which puppets present some painful and unhappy truths about the way we treat each other, and the way emotional pain drives us to do things that make no rational sense.

Anomalisa is a beautiful movie, both in its physical design and its emotional honesty.  The story is strong enough that only occasionally do we pause to remember that we are watching puppets, and marvel at the immense effort and care that went into its creation.

After Michael and Lisa have sex, it moves into uncomfortable and challenging areas, beginning with a long wild, surreal scene that drives it firmly into Kaufman territory.  But Anomalisa is always unpredictable, especially in the way it highlights how animation divorces its actors' physical presence from their performances, distilling the emotion.  We're used to seeing animation highlight big, happy emotions, but Anomalisa uses it to emphasize small, difficult ones.

Some will find Anomalisa's combination of artistic daring and intense personal drama to be off-putting, others may find it utterly absorbing. For me, the experience was somewhere in between: fascinating to watch but emotionally a little distant.  And yet, it stays with me.  Anomalisa is a hard movie to shake -- which, I imagine, was exactly what the filmmakers were going for.

Viewed Dec. 11, 2015 -- On DVD

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