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It’s the little details that make a Charlie Kaufman film such a wonder to explore. And explore is the right word as one doesn’t simply watch his films, we partake in them, invest in them, travel through them. It’s impossible not to let your eyes drift way from the characters and over to the corners, to the edges, and everything in-between. That’s where the real story often lies, and it’s where Kaufman nestles his message, even if we can’t quite understand it all the way through.
With Anomalisa, another title of his that wrestles your tongue as well as your mind, Kaufman, who has brought us journeys such as Synecdoche, New York (which he directed), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (directed by Michael Gondry) and Adaptation (directed by Spike Jonze), finds yet another way to deliver the unexpected. Yes, the themes are familiar for the gifted writer–a downtrodden man questions the mediocrity of life–but it is how these themes are presented, with the unique brand of language and expression Kaufman creates that elevates this once again above so many others.
THE STORY: Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is traveling to Cincinnati for a seminar. He’s an efficiency expert giving a motivational speech about blah, blah, blah . . . because that’s how it all feels to him. And that’s the irony. He is intelligent and needful, as expected, and numb to the human experience. He tolerates the world around him, pacifying others in mundane conversations that fill the spaces between the next, and it has become so routine, so calculated and dull, that every voice he hears, no matter who they are, is exactly the same (each voiced by Tom Noonan). This includes his wife, his son, his angry ex-girlfriend, the hotel staff and the cabbie that drove him there. They even look alike, apart from gender markers and hairstyles. Everyone in Michael’s life is redundant. Save for one. Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a baked goods representative whose voice is the sharp knife that slices deep though the mundane cloud pervasively lingering about him like a weight, pressing on his spine. She is the anomaly.
She is a self-deprecating soul, a member of the conference, and a precious light that Michael flutters too reflexively. It’s remarkable how effective the choice is to have only three voices, and how glad we are too, that hers arrives when it does. Their relationship is complex but never so much that it feels out of touch, like many of the characters in Kaufman’s work, which isn’t a criticism. It’s just to say that perhaps this story is the most approachable of his films, less abstract and even identifiable for the audience. There’s no getting around the emotions of these two and there is a formidable sex scene that may inspire a tinge of uncomfortable laughter when it starts, but when it ends, we are deeply moved by the experience and lose ourselves in the intimacy of the moment. It’s just one of many remarkable achievements that become a staple of this film.
What To Look For: What’s most admirable about all of this is it that it’s all done with puppets. These aren’t the marionettes we saw in Jones’ Being John Malkovich. These are something new, and they are jarringly authentic. You’ll notice I said authentic and not realistic, though they are certainly that. These creations feel alive. Using 3D printers, the stop-motion animation is not just compelling, it’s riveting. As mentioned at the start, it’s the details in this world that make it so pleasurable to see. We know it’s animation, but it’s so close to real, on a smaller scale, we forget that it is. Look at the hotel room Michael checks into. Watch the windows of the cab he is riding in. Look how gravity is used. A second viewing will be nothing but pressing the pause button, looking with glee at the attention to every last trivial thing that, because it is what it is, grabs us with such impact.
A GREAT MOMENT: At one point, Michael has a nightmare in which all the people in his world want to be with him, claiming the either love him or want to have sex with him, but most importantly that he should not be with Lisa. The pressure is so great he is forced into a run and in his panic, his face begins to to fall to pieces.
A massive undertaking, the sequence is the film’s creative high point, with a wonderful sense of scale and motion, and with some truly innovative and clever animation, from his leaps across the secretary pool to a waiter in the back stairs to a near nightmare-inducing run along a hotel corridor, the moment is a masterful bit of filmmaking that tops an already envelope-pushing art style. It’s remarkable stuff.
THE TALLY: An adult animated movie rarely gets the attention it probably deserves and perhaps is avoided simply because it is animation. There’s a built-in expectation that has put it in a children’s light. Kaufman made a conscious choice to create something different, crowd-funding much of this to keep free of studio interference. While it fails slightly to deliver an ending that it attempts to build, and its themes one all to played out in modern movies, there is great beauty in this work, moments that should come to define Kaufman’s vision of sadness, love and life, that it can be forgiven. Perhaps too, the art of it is so profound, we simply can’t accept that it must end. It’s what to watch.