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Review: Anomalisa

January 8, 2016

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Anomalisa PosterThe latest from visionary screenwriter and co-director Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa is a moving and strikingly unique love story, that uses innovative stop motion animation to put an inventive and poignant twist on the usual romance between strangers plot.

The main character is Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a middle aged, depressed and unhappily married customer relations expert and popular motivational speaker, who has just arrived in Cincinnati for a conference in support of his new self-help book, “How May I Help You Help Them?”

He’s staying at one of those drab and distinctly corporate hotels, and his routine suggests that he’s done this exact same thing many times before.  Michael takes a shower, and spontaneously decides to call a jilted ex-girlfriend for drinks, whose volatile response to him reveals everything we need to know about where his life has ended up.  But the mundanity of his life and staid motel routine get a shakeup when he encounters Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a captivating stranger and fan of his work who is staying at the hotel for his talk.  Everything in his world has essentially become the same, but Lisa represents something new, a unique presence who is seemingly not like everyone else.

Adapted from a conceptual sound play that was staged with the same cast of actors in 2005, the story pretty much all takes place within the confines of a gloomy motel.  Because this is essentially a dialogue driven character study, animation is a fascinating stylistic choice with which to tell the story, and some may wonder at first why they even chose to go this route.  But the medium allows for one of the film’s greatest and most thought provoking twists, with everyone but the two main leads being voiced by Tom Noonan, using the exact same inflections and vocal tones for both males and females, to help represent the depressing sameness of our character’s world.

The key to understanding these themes is in the name of the hotel Michael is staying at, the Fregoli.  It’s so named for the Fregoli delusion, a rare disorder in which someone becomes paranoid and convinced that they are the only unique individual left in the world, and everybody else is just the same person in disguise.  Not only does everyone in Michael’s world sound alike, they also share the exact same generic, androgynous facial features, made possible through animation that allows them to craft all these models from the same scans.  Except for Lisa, who is further set apart by a scar on her face that she is deeply self conscious about.  She’s an anomaly in a world where everybody else has blended into one.

The look of the film, courtesy of co-director and animation mastermind Duke Johnson, is often surreal in its almost but not quite lifelike quality.  Although the puppets are modelled after actual people, the seams that connect their foreheads and eyes, which would be digitally scrubbed out in most productions, are allowed to remain visible here.  Because of this, we are constantly reminded that Anomalisa is animated, but the characters become so vivid and real through the impeccable writing and pitch perfect voice work, that the film starts to blur the line between stop motion and live action.  This is a perfect example of the uncanny valley being used and embraced as a haunting stylistic choice.

The film does things that are rarely seen in animation, including tracking shots down hallways and through doors.  There’s even a graphic sex scene that somehow manages to feel more tender and intimate than many of its live action counterparts.  The animation provides a powerful feeling of both real and unreal, evoking an aching sense of sadness in its long takes and perfectly observed recreations of the banal moments and rituals that are part of all our lives.  For anyone who has ever experienced loneliness or depression, Anomalisa is unsettling and sometimes even uncomfortable viewing, because of the way it taps into the universal truth of these feelings and distills them into cinematic form.

The film succeeds thanks to the entirely singular voice of Charlie Kaufman, a screenwriter who once again probes deep into ideas of identity and how everyone views themselves as the lead in their own movie, despite us all being extras to one another.  His last film was the brilliant Synecdoche, New York, a profoundly affecting portrait of a playwright so consumed by his fear of death and constantly elusive search for meaning through his art, that his life just disappears beneath him in a depressive haze.  It was a film filled with so many beautiful, haunting and surrealistic moments, that it requires more than a single viewing to take it all in, and I suspect Anomalisa will be the exact same way.

Although Anomalisa is perhaps his most narratively linear film, it is profound in its simplicity, and the messages and themes are no less powerful than in his other work.  Charlie Kaufman organically weaves big ideas into his believable and sharply written dialogue, allowing us to become completely invested in his two main characters, and an emotional monologue near the end is surely one of his most beautifully written passages.  David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh deliver a pair of nuanced and deeply felt performances that rank among the best voice acting ever recorded, with years worth of buried pain and despair embedded in their line readings and vocal intonations.

Like Synecdoche, New York, Anomalisa is also strangely life affirming in its study of malaise, reminding us that we aren’t alone in pain or suffering, and even if we are physically alone, we aren’t the only ones experiencing these things.  “Each person you speak to has had a day,” Michael tells us, “some of their days have been good, some bad.”  Although every single frame is animated, this is a piercingly honest and guttingly emotional study of what it means to be human, and finding uniqueness in a society that has become almost robotic in its mundane sameness.

Providing a powerful reminder of the importance of human connection in this cold and lonely world, Anomalisa is a touching and deceptively simple motel love story, that morphs into a moving and provocative rumination on identity, conformity and what makes us unique.  It’s about no less than what it means to be alive, perfectly capturing the quiet excitement of those beautiful, fleeting moments when life delivers the promise of hope or something different, even if just for one night.

I’m still thinking about Anomalisa, and probably will be for a long time, which is about the highest praise I can offer this ambitious and entirely original animated gem.

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