I want to keep rooting for Charlie Kaufman. In all of his work so far, Kaufman has proven himself to be one of the rare few talents in Hollywood who puts genuine effort into making creative, intelligent, heartbreaking works of honest-to-God art, and raising the bar with each attempt. But then Kaufman tried his hand at directing, and I was disappointed to find Synecdoche, NY a pretentious and incoherent mess. I’m sorry, I know the movie has its supporters, but I could barely get through it.
So here’s Anomalisa, Kaufman’s second directorial attempt, alongside stop-motion animator Duke Johnson making his feature directorial debut. They’re joined by exec-producer Dan Harmon, who not only created the comedic brilliance that was “Community”, but also contributed heavily to the notorious behind-the-scenes drama that constantly threatened to get the show derailed. Everything about this collaboration screams “careful optimism.” This was something that could either have resulted in something awesome or it could have blown up with catastrophic results, with virtually no room for any middle ground.
Given all of this put together, it’s little surprise that the filmmakers chose to finance their production at least partially by way of Kickstarter. They asked for $200,000 and ended up raising just over double that, which was a new record at the time. What’s even more of a miracle is that the project didn’t implode. Far from it, the movie came out to rave critical reviews and an Oscar nomination. What’s more, it’s a genuinely good movie that’s perfectly emblematic of what makes Kaufman such a unique and extraordinary talent.
Our stage is set in Cincinnatti, the night before a huge conference on customer service. The guest of honor is Michael Stone (David Thewlis), the author of a massively successful book on how to provide superior customer service over the phone or in person. The female lead is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman he randomly meets and falls in love with over the course of one night.
But here’s the gimmick: Everyone else in this movie — and I do mean everyone, down to the last man, woman, and child — is voiced by the same actor. Namely, it’s Tom Noonan on hand to voice every last supporting and peripheral character with the same pleasantly soulless monotone. All the other characters even have the exact same face — all pleasant enough to look at, but completely blank and boring.
First of all, this is not a conceit that could possibly have worked in live-action. Not without a shit-ton of CGI, makeup effects, and ADR, anyway. Yet CGI and hand-drawn animation are both too overtly artificial and thus emotionally distancing. Stop-motion provides the perfect happy medium, giving us something more tangible to hold onto while opening doors that live-action would have kept shut.
(Side note: I’m sure that constantly recycling the same actor and producing the same facial molds in bulk was a huge part of keeping the budget down as well.)
That said, the stop-motion is quite flawed. The characters’ faces are all bisected at the eyeline, with facial halves getting swapped out as the animation dictated. I know this because the seams are always visible and the skin tones of the various pieces are often mismatched. Yet the film presents these imperfections in a deliberate way, using it as part of Michael’s suspicions that the whole world around him seems somehow plastic and fake.
Michael seems to have been stranded somewhere in the Uncanny Valley, surrounded by people who are just a little too stiff and repetitive to be human. It seems like everyone is trying to look, talk, and act just like everyone else and nobody wants to stand out. But of course, this is all presented with the kind of heightened quirkiness and black comedy that’s Charlie Kaufman’s trademark.
The film stands at 90 minutes, and that’s still after a lot of padding. An overlong and needlessly aggressive dream sequence is probably the worst case in point. That aside, there are so many little details that extend the running time in ways that are somehow meaningful. We’re with Michael through every second as he walks down the hall to the ice machine and back, and we sit through multiple failed attempts at getting a noncompliant key card to work. These are clumsy and banal little minutiae, but that’s precisely the point. Kaufman uses these moments to highlight so many small annoyances that we’ve stopped noticing or caring about because we’ve become so numb.
Conversely, there’s the sex scene. And I’m not talking about something like Team America, which emphasizes the ridiculous notion of a sex scene between two genderless and inhuman pieces of plastic. Not here. Not only are these dolls anatomically correct, but they have bulges and birthmarks just like anyone else. It’s a scene of two strangers having sex for the first time, quite literally at their most naked and vulnerable. And we sit through every awkward and passionate moment of it, from the first kiss right up until the post-coital cigarette. It’s all deliberately imperfect and not the least bit gratuitous, which makes the whole thing so much more genuine and the characters more innately human.
Which is quite an accomplishment, considering that we’re dealing with puppets.
Getting around to our female lead, Lisa is noteworthy precisely because she’s different. She has a notable facial scar, she has streaks of color in her hair, she hasn’t had a boyfriend in eight years, and she never went to college. She thinks of herself as ugly and stupid, but maybe that’s because she keeps holding herself to everyone else’s standard. Which is precisely why she has huge self-esteem problems and why Michael thinks she’s an angel sent from Heaven.
It bears remembering that Michael has made his fortune by spewing out platitudes about customer service that everyone already knows (smile, be nice to the customer, etc.). He’s surrounded himself so much for so long in the safe and familiar that he can’t see anything else, yet he’s absolutely desperate to find anything else. He constantly has to find something new and unique, though he seems to be oblivious to the fact that everything new eventually becomes old. And based on what we learn about his love life, it’s safe to say that he’s already made and forgotten that realization quite a few times.
Incidentally, it bears mentioning that even though he lives in L.A., Michael — as with Thewlis — was born in England. He’s a foreigner, which would make him a sort of anomaly. Rather like Lisa. In fact, considering that this entire brief story takes place in the span of one night in an otherwise unremarkable and monotonous life, this night in Cincinnatti could itself be considered an anomaly. An outlier. A momentary blip on the radar. Something as small and temporary as it is extraordinary and wonderful.
This movie seems to have been made for the express purpose of celebrating anomalies. It puts forth the message that anything out of the ordinary — however small or brief or apparently inconsequential — should be cherished, because that’s what makes the otherwise dull and grey world worth living in. Of course, the movie also has a lot to say about identity — Michael puts forward the notion that everyone has something deep down inside that makes them unique and amazing. As to whether Michael really believes that, if he’s somehow become incapable of seeing that unique spark in anyone else, or if it’s everyone else who’s lost sight of it, that’s left for the viewer to decide.
Anomalisa is a movie bursting with heart, intelligence, creativity, and a quirky sense of humor as only Charlie Kaufman could deliver. The stop-motion animation is utilized in all the right ways, flawed enough for artistic effect and yet detailed enough to make these plastic figures seem genuinely lifelike. The romance is tender, the drama is effective, and the comedy is razor-sharp, even if it’s occasionally obvious where the film was padded to get it up to feature length.
While I wouldn’t give this one the award over the instant classic of Inside Out, it absolutely deserves to be listed among last year’s best and it’s another huge accomplishment in what was already a fantastic year for animation. This is not a film to be missed.
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