Thursday, September 8, 2016
We've seen it in films many a time. Some are quite good. Others... So what is distinguishing about 2015's ANOMALISA? Charlie Kaufman. Writer of such unclassifiables as BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, and writer/director of the grossly underrated SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. Kaufman wrote and co-directed (with Duke Johnson) this film further set apart from other such dramas by its stop motion animation. A painstaking process that sometimes allowed one-half second of screen time to be filmed in an entire day. Why did Kaufman choose this style? Did he feel that animation would give a fresh perspective to time worn ideas? A new way to comment on something so universal?
The screenplay is not filled with mind-bending plot calisthenics as in other Kaufman efforts. You might find some metaphysical ideas within. The plight of customer service expert/author Michael Stone is followed over the course of one day as he attends a conference in Cincinatti at which he is a keynote speaker. He's an Everyman who has settled into the usual trappings, perhaps a form of rigor mortis. Everyone and everything around him seems exactly the same. Each person has the exact same voice whether they be male or female. Tom Noonan contributes this melancholy, flat monotone so effectively that it can be lost on no one as to Kaufman's point.
Michael (voice by David Thewlis) does meet a young woman with a different sounding voice (courtesy of Jennifer Jason Leigh) at the hotel. Lisa is attending the conference with her co-worker/friend, and to her considerable surprise finds herself having a nightcap in Michael's room. The tired man's spirit is ignited by her honesty about herself, her feelings. He recognizes in her a similar insecurity and self-deprecation. But also a sense of optimism, a belief that life can be beautiful. Michael and Lisa spend the night together, illustrated by a lengthy scene of intimacy that will undoubtedly make some viewers giggle. But this is not the same sort of puppet sex silliness on view in TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE. The awkwardness of the scenario will be painfully real to some, and the artificiality of the animation does not detract from that.
But has Michael fallen in love with an idea rather than a person? Can the magic last beyond breakfast, when human flaws like talking with one's mouth full reveal we're all just humans? Would Lisa prove over time to be as banal as everyone else in Michael's eyes?
ANOMALISA is much deeper than that, of course. Kaufman's cold cleverness (note the name of the hotel) is kept mostly in check, but his observance of life's mundanities and, for example, the precision of hotel employees remind us of his unusually observant, satiric eye. But this film has a heart, a rather large one, and even as we begin to see that Michael is really just a self-pitying shlub who needs to smell the roses we can appreciate the sentiment of it all. There is much truth in this movie, and perhaps having animated players was what was necessary to make it seem innovative again.