Definitely call me a fan of Charlie Kaufman. After writing such works as Eternal Sunshine and Being John Malkovich, and directing one of the most meticulously intelligent movies of all time in the form of Synecdoche, New York, he sure knows how to create something great, as well as distinctly unconventional in its presentation in spite of how instantly relatable his stories often are. It was announced a few years back that his next film would employ stop-motion animation and I saw nothing wrong with that choice.
That film is the crowd-funded Anomalisa, which is the best animated film I’ve seen from the year 2015 (albeit seen by me in 2016) even if we live in a world where the Oscar for that achievement will most surely be given to Pixar’s above-average Inside Out instead. True, it’s arguable if anything that happens at the Oscars this year is to be taken very seriously, considering how colorful it is and all.
Directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, Anomalisa stars David Thewlis, voicing an Englishman named Michael, who is so tired at the mundane nature of his existence that no one seems extraordinary to him and he has a hard time forming a meaningful conversation with just about anyone. He is a renowned author, on a business trip to Cincinnati, where something truly unusual happens at the hotel where he’s staying the night. He hears a voice and instantly knows that there is someone out of the norm in his vicinity. It turns out to be a fan named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has come to Cincinnati with her friend Emelie, specifically to listen to Michael’s planned speech the following morning.
At this point, Michael proposes that the three of them share a drink in the bar and it ends up with Lisa and Michael alone in the latter’s room, where he tries to explain that there’s something about her that seems unusual to him. Whatever it is that’s so special about her, Lisa doesn’t have the self-confidence to see it for herself. He seems to have found happiness at last, but as is common, it might just be something temporary.
There are a few side characters, all of them sharing the same voice. Tom Noonan is even credited on IMDb as the voice of “Everyone else”. I can’t tell you what the purpose is of having Tom Noonan voice literally every other character in the film without spoiling it, but if you know Kaufman, you most likely know that this decision holds a deeper purpose. And no, I don’t think it was merely to save money.
A well-known critic’s quote associated with Anomalisa declares that it’s “the most human movie of the year, and it doesn’t star a single human”. Sure enough, Anomalisa is so human it’s often heartbreaking. Whether you recognize that feeling of paranoia and social displacement that Michael constantly lives with, or the non-existent self-esteem of Lisa, the way they act, talk, and feel is something that will hit close to home for many viewers. At least if they’re experienced enough in life to know this sort of pain and loneliness.
Of course people who watch this film have already had time to complain that it’s slow and boring, which is several levels of invalid. Not only is the film’s slow and quiet nature an intentional complement to its story, but it’s also important that you’ve lived through and felt certain things in life before you get that immense connection with the main characters plus the way they feel about their surroundings and themselves. Without understanding that, all you have is the so-called “boring movie” with pretty visuals, and this is why we need to get more used to the fact that sometimes animated movies are made for grown-ups. This is isn’t about animating quick and exciting imagery; instead all the effort has gone into creating something deep and realistic. It needn’t always be as fast-paced, simple-minded and non-challenging as Ice Age In Space (yes, that’s a real thing).
People might wonder then what the point is of animating the film if it’s so anchored in reality; but like most Kaufman films, there are indeed a couple of scenes that venture into the realms of the surreal and fantastical, which is more convenient and fun to experiment with in an animated medium. There’s also the thing I mentioned earlier about hiring just one actor to voice all the side characters for the sake of symbolism – something that probably couldn’t have been done as beautifully if the film was made with live-action.
Anomalisa was profoundly moving and beautifully crafted, with great animation accompanied by lovely lighting, highly impressive cinematography, and a nice musical score. It is, with lack of a better word, beautiful. Yes, I may have snickered a little during a highly emotional sex scene, but it was only due to the reminder that this is the first time I’ve seen hand-crafted puppets have sex since Team America: World Police. (Yes, I know the puppets in this film were technically created via 3D-printing but still)
I’ve posted a trailer and my final rating below. I haven’t decided which Oscar nominee to review next but Carol and The Hateful Eight are still pretty high on my watchlist. Stay tuned all the same.