Review – Anomalisa (2015)
Directors: Charlie Kauffman & Duke Johnson
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
With his screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation, and his directorial debut Synecdoche New York, Charlie Kauffman has shown himself to be one of the cinema’s truly unique voices. He thinks outside the box. But where his experimentation is usually at the narrative level, with Anomalisa, which he has written and co-directed with Duke Johnson, the experimentation is stylistic. This sombre tale of alienation and despair is told through stop motion puppetry.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a respected customer service expert and author of the bestselling book ‘How Can I Help You Help Them?’ He has flown into Cincinnati for one night to speak at a convention. While he has a wife and son back in Los Angeles he is desperately lonely and sad man, haunted by a relationship from a decade ago which ended badly, something which is particularly front of mind at the moment given she lives in Cincinnati. In the corridor of his hotel he meets Lisa, a customer service rep from Ohio in town for the convention, and is quite taken with her. There is something about her which makes her stand out from the sameness of everyone else. She is an anomaly, an Anomalisa.
From the very outset something seems odd about the world around Michael – beyond just the fact that they are all puppets – something which takes a moment to put your finger on. Then it hits you. Every character except Michael, regardless of sex, age and ethnicity, is voiced by the same person. Everyone sounds exactly the same. When he hears Lisa’s voice, a different voice, in the corridor outside his room he becomes excited by the prospect of “someone new.” It is a cleverly simple and effective device that captures not only Michael’s specific sense of alienation, but the depersonalisation of modern life more generally. The effect is complemented by the puppetry, with only Michael and Lisa possessing unique, expressive facial structures. Every other character, despite flourishes of hair and costume, has the same basic facial features. To ensure the point is made clear, Kauffman has called the hotel they are staying in Al Fregoli – the Fregoli delusion is a paranoid delusion in which someone believes that different people are actually all the same person wearing different disguises seeking to torment them.
Originally written by Kauffman as a radio play of sorts in 2005 under the pseudonym Franco Fregoli (there’s that word again), Anomalisa was financed through a Kickstarter campaign, hence the over one thousand names who receive special thanks in the credits. While it lacks some of the meta, cerebral qualities of Kauffman’s previous work as a screenwriter, it retains his persistent tone of despair and obsession. Michael is the latest in an increasingly long line of arrogant, self-obsessed jerks that Kauffman has presented as protagonists. It is difficult to really feel for him, and the first 25 minutes of the film that we spend with him before it becomes apparent what the story is about feel quite slow. But when Lisa appears the film, like its protagonist, comes alive. Jennifer Jason Leigh brings a spark to the character, one that is obviously heightened in comparison to Tom Noonan’s largely flat delivery of the other characters. Lisa has a sweetness and vulnerability which draws us to her.
Puppetry for grownups is not completely new but the form tends to be used ironically, as a source of humour, or as a means of creating a distance between the viewer and the character. The puppets in Anomalisa have a visible seam across their faces and there are a couple of moments when their artificiality is acknowledged within the film, but despite this Kauffman and Johnson – an animation specialist probably best known for the animated episode of the television series Community – have managed to use these puppets to tell a devastatingly human story. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Anomalisa’s amazing sex scene. A far cry from the ridiculous puppet sex scene in Team America: World Police, this scene of awkward fumbling is so gentle and tender that it is genuinely touching.
While an argument can be made that its central premise might have been better served in a short film, Anomalisa has some profound moments and is ultimately an interesting stylistic experiment within Kauffman’s bleak, soul-searching body of work.
Review by Duncan McLean
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