Voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
One credit we have to give Charlie Kaufman, he makes movies that look and act like nothing else. Anomalisa is certainly different – very adult stop-action animation. Whether you enjoy this Oscar nominee depends on how much of a cinema nerd you are. Even as one myself, I had problems with the film.
Anomalisa announces it’s for mature audiences by dropping the f-bomb over and over early on. Later, nudity and even animated oral sex actually upset quite a few people; they fled the screening. What the movie lacks – even for all the art involved – is visual magic.
Yes, Anomalisa is creative Kaufman at his riskiest. (He co-directs with Duke Johnson, but make no mistake; this is a Kaufman film through and through.) Sometimes he is weird and wonderful – Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation. Sometimes, he’s experimental but less successful in reaching audiences, like when he did Synecdoche, New York and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. For many moviegoers –despite its Oscar nom – Anomalisa will fall into the latter camp, a selfish but fascinating experiment on Kaufman’s part.
The most impressive elements of stop-action are here, even in this small, intimate drama. Everything is hand-built. The painstaking work – shot one frame at a time – took three years. The figures have an odd mechanic jerkiness to them – distracting seams right across the eyes and lower face. This probably made it easier to animate, but the movie also explains it away in the plot.
That plot is less important. Michael Stone (Thewlis) is a famous English customer service expert now living in LA. He’s even written a best selling book. Now, he’s going to Cincinnati to give a talk on the subject.
The thing that Michael hasn’t shared with his loved ones – or a good psychologist – is that everyone else in the world sounds and looks the same (all voiced by Noonan). This makes a sad sense. Michael says good customer service is treating people like individuals, and yet they appear to him dull copies of each other… as anyone who’s worked customer service can tell you.
So when he meets Lisa (Leigh), a shy girl from Akron with a female voice and a unique face, Michael feels he’s found Heaven. Lisa loves the attention from her hero, too.
When one considers Michael the protagonist in this story, the use of stop animation makes perfect sense. The herky-jerky art and the repetition of the faces match Michael’s dim, selfish worldview. (He’s not a very likable hero, Mr. Kaufman.) Everyone to him is a puppet, an automaton. Because of all this, Anomalisa is a cold, staid film. The artistic decisions follow intellectual logic, which doesn’t quite transfer into a satisfying emotional experience that sweeps up audiences.
Part of the problem is that stop-action needs more visual wonder to contrast its mechanics – Anomalisa is a more realistic-looking and grim-themed film. As a story, it’s generally understated and frigid, like its protagonist.
One wonders why it was made this way in the first place, what warmth live actors could’ve accomplished – perhaps even making Michael more likable. One also wonders what a little less off-putting weirdness (like all the detail in the stop-action sex scene) – would’ve done to this quirky, aloof animated drama.
Still, if you want a movie experience like none other…just don’t say I didn’t warn you.