'Anomalisa' - animation for adults
[This blog was originally posted on andrewmarklynch.blogspot.com]
There’s been many iterations of writer/director Charlie Kaufman's troubled soul. From the doomed romantic Jim Carrey, to the harried John Cusack, and including two Nicholas Cages.
In ANOMALISA, our hero is a middle-aged puppet from Lancashire. Expertly voiced by David Thewlis, the latest Kaufman analogue feels like a truly special creation, brimming with wit, warmth, and an astounding degree of humanity.
For Michael Stone (Thewlis), the whole world looks (and sounds) alike. From his loving wife to bitter ex-girlfriend, the hotel concierge to his young son, everyone shares the same face and voice (voiced by Tom Noonan). He exists in the lonely audio fog that opens the film, until he meets the titular Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose voice re-ignites his hopes of finding true love.
Resembling an animated Lost in Translation, Michael’s story is set in a sterile hotel populated by identical clones. The multi-doored hallway is used several times as a symbol of his isolation and confusion, to both great comic and dramatic effect. Kaufman’s distinct sense of humour is illustrated throughout the movie, and keeps the characters from drifting too far into self-indulgence. One ingenious sequence involves a cavernous basement office navigated by golf cart bookends a key scene in the movie, and leaves us spellbound at Tom Noonan’s vocal versatility and range.
A romantic drama is nothing without its leads - and as Thewlis and Leigh display exceptional chemistry, humour, and warmth throughout. The reality of a new relationship is excellently drawn, from their early scenes together. Though some will find the dialogue’s realism aimless and meandering, it's direct simplicity rings truer than most cinematic portraits. Undressing with a stranger for the first time, witness the awkward and embarrassing chatter to keep momentum. The real isn’t always pretty, but it strikes a chord of truth that Kaufman mines for laughter and empathy in equal measure.
I couldn’t talk about love in ANOMALISA, and ignore the stop-motion sex scene that earned the film its R rating. The image of two puppets getting down-and-dirty was notably played for laughs in TEAM AMERICA, but here is warm, erotic, and honest. The dialogue and staging is hilarious and perceptive - as the characters fumble with their clothes, bump heads on low ceilings, and gradually lose themselves in a scene so intimate that you'll forget it's animated.
A final note for David Thewlis's stellar work as Michael. Turning in a performance that is witty, sympathetic, and heartbreaking - he is a flawed character unable to understand his world while inadvertently hurting those around him. A surprise party thrown by his loved ones leaves him alone and unable to distinguish the characters, a scene dually comic and incredibly tragic. Is it a genuine mental illness or a self-inflicted emotional crutch? We are left to decide for ourselves, and through the imaginative staging and voice casting, experience his world. We feel his pain, and even if we do not always sympathise, we are always engaged. What would have been a gimmick from a lesser writer becomes a way to examine our own heartlessness and emotional isolation.
Like all of Kaufman’s work, ANOMALISA is not for those who seek easy answers, but for those who seek to unwrap ideas of love, life, and our imperfect humanity. Steering deftly away from the pitfalls of the self-indulgent SYNECDOCHE, he delivers a genuine, heart-breaking, and damn funny return to form. At 90 minutes its economical script gathers momentum and emotion to build to a shattering conclusion. ANOMALISA re-affirms Kaufman’s prodigious talent in mapping the human mind, adrift in a world that it doesn’t understand and can’t engage with. For a film featuring (animated) full-frontal nudity, cunnilingus, and an unhealthy amount of smoking indoors, it also shows the vibrancy of animation for adults to tell complex stories. Pixar have good cause to worry at this year’s Oscars.