Rather than going out and partying or hanging out with friends as most teenagers do on Friday nights, I instead chose to have an existential nightmare by watching the latest film from writer/director Charlie Kaufman: Anomalisa.
You may recognize Kaufman as the writer of such films as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. and Being John Malkovich. Kaufman also wrote the much beloved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and directed the incredibly complex and possibly genius film Synecdoche, New York. If you’re interested in reading some more thoughts on Kaufman’s works, there’s a wonderful writer series here on Motion State. To say the least, in this very impressive filmography Charlie Kaufman has built for himself, Anomalisa stands out as both incredibly unique and right at home.
Anomalisa is about a man named Michael Stone, played by David Thewlis. Michael is a corporate spokesperson known for writing books on customer service. Many people look up to Michael and the way he is able to look at the world, but beneath that exterior, he is actually struggling deeply with problems in his personal life and what he deems “psychological problems”. When people talk, Michael simply hears the same bland voice over and over. One evening in his hotel room, Michael is practicing delivering a speech he is scheduled to give the next day and attempting to infuse it with the sincerity that he obviously lacks. Just outside, he hears the voice of a beautiful young woman named Lisa, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Michael is instantly mesmerized by her and is determined to make Lisa a part of his life.
For anyone familiar with Kaufman’s works, you should already be sensing some familiarity by now. Anomalisa has many of the trademarks of Kaufman. A depressed, weak, and almost pathetic male protagonist, extremely introspective and personal themes, and Kaufman’s signature brand of surrealism make appearances too. However, one important aspect marks this as a new step for Kaufman: Anomalisa is stop motion animated.
Anomalisa was written by Charlie Kaufman, originally as a play, and was in the works for a few years before a stop motion animator named Duke Johnson (who you may know from the brilliant little TV series Moral Orel) approached him and suggested making it an animated film. While people generally associate stop motion with more cartoonish methods of animation, Johnson and Kaufman specifically made the puppets in Anomalisa look as realistic as possible. The result is really incredible and surreal.
Anomalisa certainly contains the best stop motion animation I’ve seen in my life. Everything is incredibly smooth and every object the characters interact with feels real and has a weight to it. Alongside this gorgeous animation is some impressive cinematography. For those unaware, stop motion is possibly the most painstakingly meticulous form of animation out there. In the film, you’ll find several long tracking shots and some that I can’t imagine how difficult they must have been to pull off, such as a shot where we can see Lisa’s reflection in Michael’s eyes. This all took place within a form where messing something up could mean an incredible amount of extra work. This is truly a must-watch for anyone interested in the art of animation.
As I mentioned before, Anomalisa is definitely recognizable as something written by Charlie Kaufman. You dive into the mind of Michael Stone as he struggles with the tedious monotony of his life and the monotony that he perceives in the world. Michael is a fascinating character. The film challenges the viewer by making them see and hear the same things Michael does. The result is an engaging character study of this depressive character. Anomalisa is relatively short at just over 90 minutes, however it feels more like a short film. Charlie Kaufman draws the viewer in with his dialogue and the characters that he inhabits his worlds with so that time truly flies by.
David Thewlis is thoroughly convincing in showing us Michael and his bleak and dull views on the world. Jennifer Jason Leigh, who you might know from her recent and totally different role as Daisy Domergue in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, steals the show. Lisa is lonely and self conscious which absolutely shines through Leigh’s performance as we feel the same connection and intrigue in Lisa as Michael does.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are only three actors in the entire film. David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh portray our two leads, but everyone, and I mean everyone else is voiced by Tom Noonan. No matter age or gender, it’s Tom Noonan. It’s not hard to figure out why this creative choice was made. After hearing Noonan’s voice for so long, you start to understand Michael’s austere perspective and it’s a breath of fresh air when we hear Lisa’s unique voice. However, perhaps Anomalisa‘s biggest problem is this choice. Noonan’s performances are mostly weak and on some occasions feel forced. While Noonan mercifully doesn’t do a “girl voice” for any female characters he lends his talents to, there seems to be a tendency for him to put a vaguely woman-like inflection on his voice which sounds entirely unnatural. Anomalisa also, as much as I loved it, left me feeling unsatisfied. Michael’s character arc isn’t an arc at all, and I can’t go into it any further than that due to spoilers, but I’m sure it’s easy to spot. Generally, I don’t like to criticize a film for something like this, and I’m not sure this is even a criticism. However, the way this story goes will no doubt leave some people disappointed and aching for more. This was a very obvious choice made by Charlie Kaufman, a very intelligent one at that, and even though I know that it was very astute of Kaufman to model the story in such a fashion, I cannot rebuff that I was longing for something more when the credits rolled
Overall, Anomalisa is well worth the time of anyone who wants an introspective and personal cinematic experience, and it comes from the man who does it best. Anomalisa is gorgeous to watch and emotionally enthralling in its story’s presentation. Watching it, much like Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, is an experience that no one is likely to forget, for better or worse depending on how often you like to have these existential crises Kaufman seems so fond of creating.