The unique voice of Charlie Kaufman is back with the darkly funny stop-motion nightmare Anomalisa
Never has something so mundane looked so beautiful as the incredibly detailed, lovingly crafted set pieces of Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s strange, funny, haunting stop motion film Anomalisa. Highly anticipated by Ford On Film since it was first announced, the one-of-a-kind film neither lives up to the hype nor disappoints, because on first viewing, the experience is so impossible to fully comprehend, I’m slightly lost for words. Is Anomalisa a hilarious comedy about the banal walks of life? Is it an existential nightmare of isolation and identity? Is it a pretentious look at mental health and midlife crises? Perhaps it’s all. Perhaps it’s none. I’m not sure. All I know is, Anomalisa is the most interesting film I’ve seen in a long time.
Given the extraordinary lengths taken to create a feature-length stop motion film, you may find yourself scratching your head when you realise Kaufman and Johnson have created a film made up entirely of dull, drab locations. The first half hour alone follows customer service guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis) as he takes a flight to Cincinnati, walks through the airport, takes a taxi ride and checks in to his small room, where he’ll spend most of the film’s running time. However, slowly and somewhat sinisterly, you’ll begin to understand the vocal and physical trick Kaufman is playing here, and the reason Anomalisa had to be created this way; every character other than Michael and the titular Lisa have the same face and the same monotone voice of Tom Noonan. Trust me, after 90 minutes of hearing endless loops and choruses of Noonan’s disturbingly friendly voice, it will haunt your brain. Whether middle aged woman, young boy, or bellboy at the Fregoli Hotel (google it), Michael sees and hears nothing but the same blank tones and faces.
It’s a miraculous moment when Michael finally hears a voice other than Noonan’s. Racing through the halls to find the speaker, he stumbles upon shy, childlike Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sweetly simple girl in town for Michael’s guest speech. Hypnotised by her unique face and voice, Michael spends the night hoping to finally connect with who seems to be the only other person in the world. Over the night, we’ll hear vulnerable Cyndi Lauper renditions, see one of the tenderest sex scenes ever staged, and be introduced to an ancient Japanese sex toy that seems to have absolutely nothing to do with anything (or does it?).
For such a heavy concept and execution, it’s a happy surprise to say Anomalisa is by far Kaufman’s funniest screenplay to date. Based on a play he wrote for a one-off performance, the script is a combination of relatable anecdotes about irritating taxi drivers (“You have to visit the zoo!”) and awkward hotel visits, and tiny details that constantly play in the background (pay close attention to the view from Michael’s window). David Thewlis brings his traditional Northern wit and frustration to Michael; just listening to him try and order room service or fight with a hot shower is wonderful. Tom Noonan’s performance, meanwhile, is an almost ridiculously audacious gimmick (God, I hate using that word) that would all but fail in anyone else’s hands. Hearing the same voice endlessly could get irritating, but Noonan’s subtle shifts in tone and pitch when playing Michael’s son or wife is terrific. Noonan’s presence initially starts off as a joke that keeps getting funnier, but eventually descends into something far more dizzying and intense.
Funny as it is, Anomalisa is still a dense, dark film, not unlike Kaufman’s first directorial effort, Synecdoche, New York. Michael is a delusional, disturbed man, possibly having a nervous breakdown, and Kaufman allows us to view every uncomfortable moment, somewhat voyeuristically. Whether this was to deliberately show every bare-bone truth about this middle-aged customer service speaker or just to show off the hand-crafted puppet genitalia remains to be seen. Charlie Kaufman is famous for writing films about unhappy, failing men, whether they be unemployed puppeteers (Being John Malkovich), uninspired writers (Adaptation.) or neurotic directors (Synecdoche, New York). In Michael Stone, Kaufman may have created his most troubled protagonist yet. Constantly frowning, forced to listen to the same voice and look at the same face forever (like a feature-length version of the Malkovich Malkovich scene), prone to restless sleeping and scary visions, Michael is unhappiness personified. The only happy point in the film is his encounter with Lisa, and for a while, it seems that Kaufman may be covering similar ground to his most romantic script, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s no spoiler, however, to say their relationship does not remain uncomplicated, the screenplay heading deeper into darker terrain with each passing scene as the film flies to its climax. In particular, the ‘breakfast’ scene will be one that is talked about and remembered as one of Kaufman’s greatest achievements.
If there’s a problem with Anomalisa, it’s that the 90 minute runtime flies by so quickly, the ending seems to come out of nowhere. I didn’t expect any grand gestures or fireworks, but the film almost works as an anti-climax, ending on a somewhat peculiar note which I confess I did not entirely understand. The film feeling quick is a positive, because I ended up so entertained and invested, it was a breeze to watch, and yet I did feel slightly sour towards the ending, blindsiding me by ending on a pretty quiet moment. While certain ambiguous questions are raised (What’s the significance of the Japanese sex toy? What song is it singing? Did we really see the truth of Michael’s hotel stay?) and not answered, and the ending fits with the overall tone of the film, it did leave me somewhat deflated compared to what came before.
Anomalisa is a difficult film to rate. I feel like it will take me several more watches and a year of pondering before I can honestly say whether the film is too confusing and indulgent, or whether Kaufman has created another masterpiece of dark humour and raw emotional honesty. As a stop-motion animation, the film is a masterpiece of beautiful, intricate detail. As a black comedy, it has more laughs than any film I saw last year. As a dark, transgressive, emotional, brutal look at mental illness, love, and identity? The jury will have to remain out. All I can say is that Anomalisa has been playing on my mind since I left the screening, and I can’t wait to see it again.
By Harry J. Ford
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