Monday, December 28, 2015

ANOMALISA Is an All-Too-Human Stop-Motion Stunner


- If there's one thing you can count on with a Charlie Kaufman movie, it's that you will be taken on a journey into the mind. Over the years, Kaufman's movies have become highly-anticipated events for film fans, because his films are so singularly Kaufman - and they are guaranteed to make you think and feel in a way that most movies don't. ANOMALISA is another strange brew from Kaufman. But like his other films, the movie's surreal weirdness works so well because, in a roundabout way, it taps directly into human experience with a pinpoint sort of authenticity. ANOMALISA may be a stop-motion-animated film with a dreamlike, at times nightmarish premise. But it is remarkable because the puppets in the film feel more human than many real-life actors, and its characters and their experiences feel more painfully and poignantly recognizable than those in most movies that are trying to be conventionally true-to-life. The magic of this film is that it is art reflecting life in the truest sense.

The film centers around Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a weary, bored-with-life, easily-irritated middle aged man. Michael travels from Los Angeles to Cincinnati for a customer-service convention, where he is scheduled to be a keynote speaker, following the successful publication of his book on customer service best-practices. But Michael has a bigger problem than simple middle age malaise - to him, everyone sounds the same - literally - and it's slowly driving him mad. Seriously - to Michael's mind, the collective prattle from everyone else in the universe is like one giant hive-mind hellbent on annoying him to death. Every person - man, woman, child - speaks with the exact same calm, over-enunciated voice (provided by veteran character actor Tom Noonan), and has a face that is a variation on the same theme - with the same big eyes and cheekbones and passive-aggressive smile. To some of us, the people we deal with might occasionally seem like part of some incessantly-needy collective. But to Michael, they really are. That is, until he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lisa is in many ways unremarkable. But to Michael, she's a miracle - and not just because she's a fan of his book. Michael finds himself instantly drawn to Lisa because she has a different voice and a different face. She is special. When Michael hears someone who is distinct and unique, his entire universe is turned upside down.

ANOMALISA looks amazing. The miniature sets, the way the film is shot, the detail and artistry in the stop-motion animation - all fairly mind-blowing. The humanity elicited from the film's characters is also really incredible - rarely have animated characters in a film felt this real or relatable. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson made the decision to keep the seams of the stop-motion puppets visible, rather than digitally smoothing them over - and the effect is to accentuate the film's hand-crafted vibe. The seams also come into play in the film, both thematically and plot-wise. There is the sense that these characters are broken, cracked, and prone to falling apart. At the same time, the visible seams connect to Michael's search for truth about himself and the world. What makes him different than others? What makes everyone else so identical? At times, the movie shows us the exposed puppet innards of its characters, adding to the feeling that, well, they are mere puppets in some sort of inescapable cosmic prison of someone else's making. Yep, I'm going in deep here - but that's the kind of philosophizing that a Charlie Kaufman movie leads to ...

The movie also sounds amazing thanks to the voice work of its two primary leads, plus Tom Noonan. Thewlis is pitch-perfect as Michael - making the character both sympathetic and off-putting - easy to see a part of ourselves in, but also easy to see how his dour worldview is largely of his own making. Jennifer Jason Leigh is also absolutely great as Lisa. Leigh wowed me recently with her career-defining turn in The Hateful Eight - but her performance here is just as remarkable in its own way. It's hard to call a vocal performance unflattering, but that's what hers is. She makes Lisa the kind of woman everyone knows - shy, dorky, awkward, unassuming. This is not the kind of man-meets-woman story where the woman is some sort of manic pixie dream girl or only-in-the-movies cool girl. No, Lisa is almost painfully average - and yet, to Michael, she is a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly. Finally, Tom Noonan does some truly award-worthy work here playing Everyone Else. He voices men and women and kids, and somehow makes these characters at once distinct and almost humorously same-y. There's a wonderful quality to his voice - often used to great effect in horror movies - that makes his characters seem both calm and soothing yet somehow creepily detached.

Much about ANOMOLISA remains mysterious. There is a dream sequence halfway through the film that plays like a puzzle-box, leaving you wondering about its meaning in relation to the rest of the movie. The film's ending is shockingly abrupt - it leaves the audience scratching its head, because the film hints at some sort of final revelation or twist that never really comes. The ending is challenging and leaves many questions. Ultimately though, I think the central question here is: why Lisa? The movie takes great pains to show her as unremarkable to most other than Michael. And at first, the optimistic reading is that the film is making a statement about human connection - about how the mere act of knowing someone intimately and appreciating them as distinct and special is what gives life meaning and fulfillment. At the same time, the film quickly undermines any sense of optimism it creates during that initial meeting of Michael and Lisa. I won't spoil anything, except to say that ANOMALISA is not a love story. Not really. Kaufman's dim view of life and love ultimately takes hold. Without the influence of the more rose-tinted glasses of a Michael Gondry (the director of Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine script), Kaufman is free to be as bitter and jaded as he wants to be. It leads me to wonder if the extended sex scene (yep, puppet-sex - super awkward, painfully unglamorous puppet sex) in the film is symbolic of the movie's ultimate message - that to a certain kind of person (men, namely men of the older and more jaded variety), life takes on the rhythm of an illicit roll-in-the-hay. It is endless suffering and monotony - occasionally interrupted by an illusory moment of joy and newness - that is quickly revealed as just a blip; a glitch in the matrix that is soon corrected.

Kaufman leaves you with a lot to think about with ANOMALISA. It's not a movie with all the answers or even satisfying resolution to its own characters' struggles. But how many movies can take us down this sort of philosophical rabbit hole? And how many movies can do so with such artfulness and poignancy and humor? ANOMALISA is often bitingly funny - a spot-on satire of modern life's seeming drudgery. But its biggest joke may be its pulling the rug out from under its own premise. Lisa - "Anomalisa" - may just be a cosmic joke, a grand illusion, a self-delusion on the part of Michael. And so Charlie Kaufman messes with us all yet again, delivering a cosmic, meta-textual mind-%$&# as only he can.

My Grade: A-

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