So once again we have survived.

Anomalisa

tn_anomalisaANOMALISA is a sad, sometimes funny story about loneliness and petty, ugly human nature. If I told you it had some bizarre, seemingly unfilmable premise then that would all add up to tell you it was a Charlie Kaufman film, but it actually doesn’t have that. It’s just about a guy who travels to Cincinatti to speak at a convention and the night he spends at a hotel. Nothing crazy. It’s mostly very realistic, a frank look at relationships between men and women. It’s animated, though.

It’s all done in a beautiful and unique form of stop motion. Other than being made with small materials it’s almost entirely an attempt at naturalism, no cartoonish stylization at all. One exception is that they left the seams between the mouth and eye sections, which in other movies done with this technique such as PARANORMAN or THE BOXTROLLS were digitally removed. But this is a Charlie Kaufman movie so pretty much everything that seems a little strange – those seams, the androgynous facial structure of most of the characters, one actor providing most of the voices – turns out to be intentional and thematic.

We could compare this to Wes Anderson’s THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX as another unusual stop motion feature that fits naturally into the filmography of its live action auteur. But that one emphasized the hand-made-ness, showing off the imperfections in animating fur, using cotton balls for clouds and puffs of smoke. ANOMALISA miraculously mimics human intimacy in rubber.

I wonder what this says about that “uncanny valley” theory? In computer animation it can be harder to accept more realistic characters than stylized ones, because the closer it gets to the real thing the more you notice that it’s not quite right. Nobody would see this and almost fall for it being live action, so maybe that’s why it works. But they are amazingly life-like – even down to having pores in closeups – without giving me the creeps.

But I think maybe the most incredible thing about it on a technical level is how exactly they can re-create the feel of a hotel room or an airport inside a miniature model. You know you’re looking at a facsimile but you feel like you’re inside a real hotel.

Anyway, I think people will love it. It will become another Hot Topic merchandising juggernaut like NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS I bet.

mp_anomalisaIt’s Kaufman’s smallest movie. Get it, because it’s models. Seriously though, it’s very intimate, not that many locations, mostly confined to a few characters at a bar or in a hotel room, talking. This is because it was originally written for a series of live reads, a one-time performance like a radio play with live music by Carter Burwell. You know, kinda like the show they put on in the popular movie RADIOLAND MURDERS.

Producer Dino Stamatopoulos (known as “Starburns” on Community, but also creator of the cartoon Moral Orel) saw the live read and convinced Kaufman to turn it into an animated movie. Kaufman co-directed with animator Duke Johnson. But I think since he conceived it for this “sound play” medium he didn’t feel the pressure to come up with a grand concept like he would for a movie, which is probly good because how could you get grander than SYNECHDOCHE, NEW YORK? I don’t think there’s room on the earth for a concept bigger than that. So this time he just made a story about how men treat women.

Weirdly, with these puppets they managed to make one of the more realistic sex scenes ever in a movie. They’re normal people, a little chubby, but not in a comical way, they’re awkward and nervous, but into it. It’s not exaggerated or used as a joke about bad sex, and it’s not comical-because-it’s-not-real like the puppet sex in TEAM AMERICA. It’s just a sex scene.

The trouble comes afterwards. Michael (David Thewlis, THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU) is a nationally known expert on customer service, and his life seems to be about pretend relationships. He meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, MIAMI BLUES) and sees her as a one-of-a-kind dream girl, while we can see that, while nice, she has nothing that should impress him. And after they decide (incorrectly) that they should spend their lives together, Kaufman brilliantly illustrates the exact moment when the magic/delusion wears off.

It’s all on Michael. This fuckin guy needs to learn to recognize his tendency to project miraculous wonderfulness onto random women and then punish them for not living up to it. Between his wife and broken-hearted ex we can see the trail of women he must’ve made assumptions about, fallen stupidly for, won over and then immediately got bored of. The women he read too much into.

Man, Kaufman is good at making characters who are terrible and don’t know it. Sometimes he makes you ask, “Wait — am I terrible?”

ANOMALISA is an absolutely unique movie. It was actually partly funded by Kickstarter, so thank you anybody who contributed to that. I appreciate it. It has also become the first R-rated movie nominated for the best animated feature Oscar. I’m sure kids would love it though and I look forward to many sequels like with ICE AGE, DESPICABLE ME, KUNG FU PANDA, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and etc.

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VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 16th, 2016 at 12:59 pm and is filed under Cartoons and Shit, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

7 Responses to “Anomalisa”

  1. I was surprised by the amount of compassion Kaufman seems to have for these characters. People were never really his thing before, and some of his movies can get quite brutal. But even Michael –who the movie openly acknowledges is a total scumbag– is afforded more dignity and affection by the script than maybe he even deserves. He’s a real asshole, but maybe he’s trying to do the best he can with what he has, and he certainly suffers at least as much misery from his own actions as he inflicts. The way Davis Thewlis voices him –with a tender resignation which makes it sound like every line he says takes enormous effort just to drag itself out of his mind into reality– makes it impossible to really hate him. He’s a pitable character, someone who probably wants to do the right thing but is so hopelessly lost in his own failures and desperation that he barely even knows which way is up anymore. The real surprise, though, is how kindly Kaufman treats Lisa. He does nothing whatsoever to brush over her flaws or make her seem better than she is, but I think he finds a certain real heroism in how middling and unspecial she is. I like that, SPOILER, it turns out that while Michael may have ruined plenty of lives, especially his own, here’s one case where he actually improved a life, albeit without really meaning to. There’s nothing at all actually special about Lisa, and she knows that, but her night with Michael actually gave her a way of imagining herself not better than she is, but good as she is, on her own terms. It’s a surprisingly upbeat ending for a mostly downbeat film, and I actually like that about it. It feels like maturity on Kaufman’s part; I think a younger version of him would have thought it would be hipper to end with another nihilistic jab at the pettiness of it all. ANOMOLISA Kaufman actually seems kind of happy to have brought a little bit of good to his characters, even on a very small scale.

  2. No mention of the absolutely fantastic Tom Noonan? He steals the show, bringing nuance and subtle flavors to every single other character in the film!

  3. I didn’t know going in what his purpose was in the movie so I didn’t want to ruin it for other people. But yes, he is good.

  4. Damn fine point, I did not think of that. Apologies.

  5. Great review Vern. Didn’t care for the film personally although I can appreciate its many good points and handful of greats scenes / moments. I’m pretty sure I understood what the film was aiming for but just spent the runtime thinking “So what? So people are self-centered and delusional. Why should I give a shit about that? Why am I supposed to care about this miserable asshole anyway?” I didn’t find it sad or insightful. It was just the usual sad-sack middle aged male narcissist Kaufman character moping through an existential malaise but without the brain-bending conceptual showstoppers to help cushion the near constant egocentricity. Maybe that’s the point but if so it isn’t of any interest to me at all.

    If it wasn’t such a beautifully crafted stop-motion visual marvel there is no way I would have gotten through it all to be honest. And I love Charlie Kaufman’s other joints (even HUMAN NATURE)

    And SPOILER the scene where the main character breaks down and loses it while speaking publically jesus man, really? I’d be pretty okay with that particular movie convention being taken out the back and shot. I never thought I’d see such a lazy and familiar screenwriting mechanic in a Kaufman joint.

    Anyway, on a positive note Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as Lisa blew me the fuck away. I thought she was phenomenal in the role and actually preferred her work in this to her work in H8FUL 8I8H8 although she is of course excellent in both.

  6. Great review, Vern, glad that you liked it. And great analysis of the movie and the ending, Mr. Subtlety. I mostly agree with you both, with the exception that I didn’t read Michael as an asshole, but rather someone suffering from depression and/or mental illness. Thus I wasn’t quite as hard on him as you were, and felt the story of his life to be rather tragic. I mean, seriously, would any of us want to trade places with him? It seems like such a dull and dire existence. Mind you, I don’t want to excuse his behavior, and don’t think he’s the best person in the world, ever. But I didn’t really see him as an asshole, but rather as seriously troubled.

  7. I think it is an interesting open question whether the movie’s conventions (animation, everyone having the same voice, Michael’s tacit understanding that he’s a puppet) are stylistic ways of conveying his alienation, or if this is the literal way he’s perceiving the world, and he actually is mentally ill (specifically, the name of the hotel suggests he may be suffering from Fregoli Delusion). I tend to think, given Kaufman’s output, it’s more likely to be symbolic, but it’s certainly possible to argue otherwise.

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