Review: Anomalisa (AFI FEST 2015)
PLOT: Michael Stone is a celebrated writer who comes to speak at a conference to inspire others. The only problem is, his own boring and predictable life is tearing him apart. However, there is a glimmer of hope when he meets a strange woman who happens to be unlike anybody else in his mundane world.
REVIEW: One of my favorite aspects of walking into a film festival is the opportunity to go into a film completely fresh. Even as a fan of Charlie Kaufman’s work, I had no idea what to expect from ANOMALISA. I avoided seeing or reading anything about the film, and it was a fantastic way to experience it. This heartfelt and incredibly funny film is a very human and adult drama that is fueled by two very honest performances. It also features character actor Tom Noonan playing every other role in the film. Considering this is a stop-motion feature co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, it is also one of the most beautifully poignant character driven stories this year. While the script was originally performed as a radio play, the animation and the music by Carter Burwell help to make this an intoxicatingly piece.
David Thewlis voices the role of Michael Stone, a celebrated writer who has helped many with his book on building ones potential - focusing on those who work in customer service. He arrives late one night in Cincinnati and checks into an upscale hotel where he is going to give a speech to fans of his book. When he arrives, his frustration with his own mundane life seems to overpower him. After speaking quickly to his wife and son who he has left behind, he makes a call to an old flame living nearby. He convinces her to come to the hotel, but things do not go as planned. And suddenly, lost in his own midlife crisis, he hears what seems to be a familiar voice. Quite by chance, he discovers a wondrous girl named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). While she is plain and overly self deprecating, her voice is her own. As mentioned earlier, every single character besides Leigh and Thewlis is voiced by Mr. Noonan - male and female.
The puppet work here is impressive. Every single character is so well defined - aside from most of them sounding exactly alike. Their expressions and body language reveal so much about who they are. Using only minimal CGI, everything here is incredibly detailed. It may take some time to get used to the lines on the faces, or the occasionally strange shapes, but it is easy to see Michael, Lisa and every one else as a flesh and blood creation. If you are familiar with TEAM AMERICA - another stop-motion feature using puppets - then you’ll remember the insanely funny sex scene. ANOMALISA also has a sexual encounter. Yet this time it is a tenderly awkward moment that feels far more personal than anything you may see this year. And yes, the puppets are fully realized, right down to the genitals.
All three actors are especially well cast. Noonan portrays every man, woman and child the same way. And yes, there is a point to this. It seems to Michael Stone that all those around him are carbon copies of each other. Even his own child he calls “slugger” is just another person that he must deal with. When we finally meet Lisa, it is pure magic to hear the joy and inspiration that Jennifer Jason Leigh shares with Thewlis’ Stone. In one of the best moments, he convinces her to sing one of her favorite tunes and it is easy to see why he begins to fall for her. As strange as it may sound having only three actors, with one playing different roles the exact same way, it is one of the most creative choices the filmmakers could have come up with.
Choosing to take this script by Kaufman and using stop-motion animation was an inspired idea. The story could have easily been live action using the talent themselves and just dubbing Noonan’s voice, but somehow the inhuman quality of the animation works wonders. You cannot take your eyes off of it. This is a refreshing way to tell a story that is absolutely adult. The humor is incredibly open and mature. And somehow putting it in this unreal world makes it all the more fascinating to watch.
ANOMALISA is a thoughtful and distinctively original film. We’ve all seen a man going through a midlife crisis before, but never like this. It is a remarkable work that never panders to its audience, but dares the viewer to fully connect with its frustrated leading man. Every single moment is earned, whether it is one filled with laugh or fears, this is astounding work. Kaufman and Johnson have taken a personal story and given it something just a little bit deeper thanks to unique casting and incredible puppetry. It is a sublime marriage between animation and the dark and subtlety of our own emotional perception of what life means. This is deep stuff that will connect to audiences in unusual albeit fantastic ways. This is a movie that fans of Kaufman will rejoice in.