In many ways, and this isn’t for the mere sake of clever wordplay, Anomalisa – the latest film from the weird and wonderful mind of Charlie Kaufman – is an anomaly in and of itself. Where the endless possibilities of animation have taken audiences on fantastical, often family-friendly and largely un-film-able journeys, Kaufman and stop-motion specialist Duke Johnson rather chose to spend 48 months carefully animating a film so deeply, and, in large part, depressingly rooted in the monotony of everyday life. But thanks to over 1,700 backers via kickstarter.com, Anomalisa is a treat to watch. If Kaufman’s juxtaposition of daily intricacies with surrealistic stints isn’t something you’re keen on chewing on, then at least the runtime also plays showcase to Johnson’s delicately fashioned, though ultimately ultra-ordinary, animation—which is especially expressive in adjustable portions on the dolls’ faces. Interestingly enough, the gaps of these pieces remain visible. Although one could argue this highly visible detail distances them from these characters, being reminded that they’re all puppets only stresses the universality of the source material, which, of all mediums, began as nothing more than an ‘audio play’.
Micheal Stone (David Thewlis), whose blunt name mirrors his middle-age silvering and dim British accent, is on a business trip to Cincinnati to deliver a motivational speech about customer service. Yet, on his journey to the cleverly-named Fregoli Hotel (more on that later), Micheal encounters a man who awkwardly holds his hand while flying, a cabbie passionate about the city’s world-famous chilli and zoo, which he proudly proclaims is “zoo-sized,” and a bell hop that Micheal repeatedly denies of customary smalltalk. They’re strange brushes with humanity and add a handful of welcome laughs out of sheer human oddity, but in these, and other, subsequent, scenes it becomes apparent early on that everyone around Micheal shares the same slightly fluctuating voice of Tom Noonan. Tying that into the hotel moniker, Fregoli being a physiological condition wherein the sufferer believes everyone is the same person with different faces, we learn Micheal himself has this ailment, but something he only mentions once off-hand. Unfortunately, this is the type of information, which if explained in a tad more detail and organically onscreen, would have likely propelled Anomalisa out of the arthouse.
Once Micheal gets settled into his hotel room, shown in a single extended take—complete with a riveting trip to the ice machine, he attempts to practice his speech. However, we begin to sense a real weight in his voice as he reads an excerpt aloud, and soon enough it becomes apparent he’s the one in need of a motivational speech. After disastrously trying to find affection in the woman he left 11 years ago to start a family with his current wife, Kaufman swiftly excels the serious loneness of Micheal’s character whilst evolving him into an adulator we hesitate to pity. Though not long after, motivation comes to Micheal in the form of one the people he’s supposed to motivate the following day: Lisa (the eugenic voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh cutting through the sea of Noonans), a fan of Micheal’s who travelled with her distinctly more attractive friend to listen to his speech. Following an evening spent at the bar with the two ladies, Micheal becomes infatuated with Lisa’s stutters, snorts, and history of playing the Jewish harp—a name she explains she hesitates to call it by, believing its offensive to Jews. Micheal then asks if she’d like to come to his room, a request she’s surprised, scared, and oh so subtly pleased by. Alone together, Micheal, as his age suggests, advances with experience while Lisa sits closed off on the edge of the bed, grasping her glass of whiskey with two hands.
The film henceforth proceeds as an delicate and inelegant dance, with Lisa slowly opening up and Micheal reconnecting, if only momentarily, with humanity. Outside of the graphic, tender, and unfiltered sex scene, the night’s highlight is found no where else but a supple rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Flexing her vocal cords for the second time in 2015 (the other being Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight), Leigh renders the pop song with such sombre detail that I wouldn’t be surprised if she got lost in it while recording, just as Lisa does in a perfectly timed bit of comedic relief halfway through the melody. In fact, the entire film features a fair bit of comedy; from the cumbersome encounters mentioned above, to wordplay (Micheal accidentally buys a Japanese sex toy for his son after inquiring about the nearest “toy” store), to an absurd fever-dream that is built up to so plainly in the film’s established realism that it’s reveal comes off as hilariously shocking.
Naturally, everything mentioned above would be nowhere near as effective if not for Johnson and the art department’s freakishly authentic animation. Everything from the grey and white iPod earphones to the hotel room everyone’s stayed at, the palpable attention to detail works subtly but undeniably in tune with film’s significant everyday similarities despite impressively not featuring a single living thing. That said, Kaufman’s script doesn’t necessarily need to be enjoyed to appreciate the animation, yet the two work so well together that audiences owe it to themselves to ponder, discuss, or read up on the film afterward in order to get the most out of the easily digestible 90-minute runtime—a post-viewing investment, which is, unfortunately, an anomaly in modern cinema, but unquestionably worthy for your time nonetheless.
Anomalisa receives a 4.5/5