Film review of the Oscar-nominated stop-motion animated film by writer-directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, about a motivational speaker dealing with a personal crisis about his love-life and his relationship with the world.
To like this post, comment on it or follow this blog, please scroll to the bottom. Use the search function on the left of the screen to search for other reviews and updates.
Director: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman. (90mins). Paramount Animation/Starburns (15)
Cast & credits
Producers: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman, Dino Stamatopoulos, Rosa Tran.
Writer: Charlie Kaufman.
Camera: Joe Passarelli.
Music: Carter Burwell.
Sets: John Joyce, Huy Yu.
David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan.
During a visit to Cincinnati, Mike (Thewlis), a motivational speaker for the customer service industry contacts his long-lost love, whom he inexplicably upped and left many years before. The meeting triggers an emotional breakdown for him as he suddenly realises he is stuck in life with no one he really loves and sets about desperately trying to remedy this.
Charlie Kaufman is an odd man. I’m not making a personal slight against him, genius that he is for giving us the staggeringly inventive screenplays for Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002) and occasionally turning his hand to directing them, as with Synecdoche, New York (2008).
But by his own admission, he is somewhat of a loner with an interest in the internal workings of the human mind and emotions, rather than the big wide world outside of us.
Well, there are plenty of other filmmakers to point their cameras at that, so praise be to Mr Kaufman, cinema’s ultimate (only?!) phenomenological screenwriter!
With Anomalisa, Kaufman is to at least be admired for throwing us all a big cinematic curve ball in his canon, by eschewing the filming of actual humans and using figurines, brought to life by the fantastically old-school style of stop-motion animation and using the voices of only three actors. Thewlis and Leigh are the main characters; blank, dull sounding Noonan provides vocals for everyone else whether they are male, female, adult or child (pointing out how emotionally distant Mike feels he is from his monosyllabic fellow man).
I had funny feelings about watching this film. I’m not a fan of animated film but I went in to the cinema, based on recommendations, prepared for something phantasmagorical, mind-blowing and life-changing. Anomalisa was a film that was going to lift me out of myself and plop me back in the comfy confines of my cinema seat a changed-for-the-better man.
Anomalisa certainly had me gawping at the screen and scratching my head a little, but I didn’t leave feeling that the film was a “rare sliver of transcendence”.
Admittedly, most of that gawping came from the incredibly well-realised figurines used in the film, figures which quite telling have jointed faces. These give us a peek at the robotic structures underneath, reflecting how Mike feels he is merely an automaton going through the motions of living and how we all wear masks as social actors on the stage of life.
Obviously, they are not meant to look real but there are some arrestingly realistic touches to Mike and Lisa’s naked ‘bodies’.
That amazed-gawp quickly formed into a fixed, rictus-like look of disbelief when Mike and Lisa gave in to carnal lust in all its cunilingus, slurping, erect penis and premature ejaculation glory.
Now, I’ve seen a fair few wince-inducing movie moments in my time and I don’t have a problem seeing sex depicted on screen, but even I found myself approaching my own existential crisis as I wondered as to the mental state of a group of movie technicians who posed the figures and filmed them for what must have been a considerable amount of time to produce this scene.
But enough of my puppetry puritanism, for the animation itself is magic and beguiling and there are things to admire.
There is a lack of a full musical score, not that the film is without tune. The music comes in the most part through the song of collective human voices. At the beginning of the film, as disparate chattering voices suddenly converge and quicken to become one sound, we hear what Mike does, not individual people but one big, amorphous mass he cannot penetrate, unlike Lisa, who has her own voice and he can easily make love to.
Kaufman’s observations about human interactions and encounters are spot-on throughout, form the taxi driver who ignores Mike and talks at him as if on a perpetual loop of pointless tourist information and the hotel shower that scolds and then freezes. If it wasn’t for the film being photographed (beautifully, I might add) in a soft, pinkish, fuzzy haze, you might feel you are in a recognisably real world.
Leigh, voicing the sweet Anoma-Lisa of the title who might provide Mike with the opportunity to love truly, madly deeply for once, is warm and full of hopeful yearning.
I was intrigued by the angle Kaufman takes when Mike begins having his breakdown and the entire hotel staff appear to fall in love with him, his self-obsession finally taking over, in a scarily weird scene in the hotel’s basement, but suddenly we are jerked back to ‘reality’ and a personal drama that just doesn’t go the distance in a film that somehow feels too short and lacking in impactful incident for the 90 minutes we have.
Perhaps I’ve missed something, something that other, far luckier critics have had the blissful luck to have experienced, and for that I will continue to scratch my head until the end of my days. For now, I’ll have to deal with the fact that another supposedly stunning film, like Carol, didn’t amaze me out of my poor, wretched, earth-bound soul.