Film Reviews

Anomalisa Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

Rating - 6/10
Charlie Kaufman's return to cinema after a seven-year hiatus is realized in a collaboration with Duke Johnson (of Moral Orel fame) through a stop-motion animation adaptation of Anomalisa, a "sound play" conceived ten years earlier under Kaufman pseudonym Francis Fregoli. That surname is a reference to a peculiar psychological condition called Fregoli delusion where one perceives everyone else interchangeably as the same person/identity, which almost seems anti-Buddhist in philosophy.
Such is the population of literal and figurative puppets in the universe of one Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a married Los Angeles-based self-help guru, who flies into Cincinnati for a day to give a banal lecture on customer service in a hotel auditorium.  En route, he's forced to endure the inevitable chitchat and gaucheness of forced conversation with those in the customer service industry themselves that amusingly reveal his own hypocrisy and impatience.  If the premise seems underwhelming for Kaufman, known for some of the most wonderfully bizarre shape-shifting landscapes in the last twenty years, like Synecdoche, New York (2008), he is acutely aware. However, the pared-down scale of the nearly real-time plot juxtaposed with the self-consciousness of interaction is quickly exhausted and entangled in the mild humor of hackneyed mid-life crisis.
Excluding Jennifer Jason Leigh as the golden-voiced woman of the title (portmanteau of "anomaly" and "Lisa"), every other character, from Michael's wife and son to quarreling strangers, are embodied by the sanguine, androgynous ring of character actor Tom Noonan, who often sounds as if he's doing his best impersonation of Trey Parker's impersonations in the South Park series and Team America: World Police (2004).  The puppeteering in the latter has additional relevance to Kaufman and Johnson's film, which was conceived in 2012 as a forty-minute short. With the aid of Kickstarter contributions, additional funding through Starburns Industries, and sheer diligence in the uncommon use of 3D-printed figures, Anomalisa soon expanded into a full-length feature.
Of course, the intentional redundancy of faces and rigidity in the method of animation are potential hurdles to the audience's utter immersion in the characterizations. At least Thewlis' subtle intonations assist the impending existential dread in the recognition of Kaufman's prior filmography that conjures associations to the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink (1991) about another lonely, isolated writer.  But that proves to be deceptive in the squarely more sober mood, akin to the quiet cross-generational romance in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003).  As Michael picks up on an unfamiliar voice down the hall from his room, he's subsequently introduced to two Akron, Ohio, service representatives, Emily and Lisa, who are both ardent followers of his famous profit-boosting book, How May I Help You Help Them?
As the more demure and self-deprecating of the travelling pair, Lisa's lilting, feminine timbre conveys a "magical" purity of personality that has yet to be subjected to Michael's deviance. In the careful engineering of the self-absorbed writer's downfall, the co-directors find it relevant to portray one of the most intimate and explicit love scenes in any theatrically released animated film, which is simultaneously as awkward as the initial small talk but liberating in its devotion to Lisa's fulfillment and individuality.
If their tryst seems to be defying expectation to lead Michael on a more physically ecstatic than psychologically unnerving adventure, Anomalisa then takes an ill-advised detour into literal nightmare scenario. The Kafkaesque sequence with Lawrence Gill, the basement-dwelling hotel manager, is a poorly integrated storytelling ruse, and its effort to downplay and plainly divide the real and illusory play against Kaufman's strengths as a screenwriter.  He's much more at home in a large-scale theatrical sandbox than pulling the strings in domestic and office miniatures.  A bit ironically... or perhaps most appropriately, the film is an anomaly in Kaufman's stellar catalogue; in other words, it's no Mona Lisa.