.Review: ‘Anomalisa’

Charlie Kaufman's latest film, 'Anomalisa,' explores despair and neurosis-with puppets.

YOUNG EWE: Oona Laurence is excellent in the role of Tommie, a young girl who is lured away by a stranger.

A straight-up Kickstarter-funded anomaly, Anomalisa by Charlie Kaufman (with co-director Duke Johnson) is touching but transitory. It’s a tragic stop-motion animated tale with resemblances to Lost In Translation.

In Cincinnati in 2005, Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) comes to the Hotel Fregoli to address a convention. He’s the author of the best-selling customer-service text How May You Help Them? This expert in the technology of smiling and self-effacement is, in a word, miserable—”I think I have a psychological problem,” he confesses to a woman whom he dropped hard 10 years previously for no reason.

The lady in question is Bella Amoroso, and with a name like that, we can expect romance. It doesn’t happen like that—Michael has been married and had a son since the last time he and Bella met. After one last encounter with this love of his life, he returns to his room to view a moment of movie ecstasy on television—the finale of My Man Godfrey (1936) with a gaga Carole Lombard, dancing in happiness. After he has an anxiety attack that wakes up some of the guests, Michael goes drinking in the hotel bar with two female fans—a big and bawdy blonde named Emily and her shy pal Lisa, voiced by a very endearing Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Voicing this frail stop-motion creature was probably harder work than being QT’s punching bag in The Hateful Eight. Lisa puts herself down for being stupid and ugly. Everything she does, she does gingerly.

That they’ll end up together is plain—Michael needs her, and Lisa is longing to be needed. She has one more attractive quality: her salient feature is that she sounds different than anyone else. (All voices in the film that aren’t performed by Leigh and Thewlis are done by Michael Noonan). The many characters in Anomalisa are all similar, with unconcealed seams across the bridges of their noses—the fissures make all them all look like they’re wearing wire-rimmed spectacles. Their jaws and cheeks are segmented, too, in a mask of grey-white skin. A clue: the Hotel Fregoli is named after a psychiatric term—”Fregoli Delusion”—the belief that every person you encounter is just one figure, masked under different faces.

There has been some fretting on the Internet about why a movie lacking in cartoony squash and stretch was done in the animated format. (Kaufman had written this story as a play, and then was approached about adapting the play into stop motion.) Animation usually equals exaggeration, but the lively art can be used as a way of removing nuance and facial expression, leaving the viewer with more questions to ponder. Is Michael’s neurosis self-delusion? Is he just one more prowling married man exaggerating his melancholy, in hopes of attracting girls? Are his terrors and nightmares merely reflections of his guilt for straying from his wife?

Perhaps more important is this question: do you really want to find out? There are passages in Anomalisa as adroit as the best of Kaufman’s daydreamy scripts, such as Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich. The delicacy of touch and focus is visible throughout. Odd that one of the most tender lovemaking scenes of the year involved puppets—seen in their anatomically correct, awkward coupling a decent distance away from the bed. The eroticism of the scene is cast with pathetic human sadness. We’re watching a couple borrowing happiness against later sorrow.

But as per Lost in Translation, this is a story that might be more keen to a celebrity than a film audience: people who encounter a taxi driver’s probing questions, or a bell boy’s persistence, or having personal space encroached upon during a commute on a plane. Michael’s problems as an Englishman in a too aggressively friendly, too insanely cheerful America are, in essence, a famous person’s complaints about the price of fame. It’s the old story of flinching through all the unwanted attention, like raw oysters shivering under the lemon juice.

Anomalisa
R; 90 Mins.
Aquarius, Palo Alto

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