A man crippled by the mundanity of his life experiences something out of the ordinary.
Charlie Kaufman has been a fresh and original voice in filmmaking since his screenwriting debut on the surreal and brilliant ‘Being John Malkovich’, and ‘Anomalisa’, his first animation, adds another string to his bow. It’s also Kaufman’s second film as director, in this case alongside Duke Johnson who was responsible for the stop motion christmas episode of ‘Community’. This talent comes through in the sophisticated animation which looks as real as I could believe it is possible to get with this form. The story of ‘Anomalisa’ focuses on Michael Stone, a lonely self help author (voiced by David Thewlis) who is staying overnight at a Cincinnati hotel to speak at a conference the next day. In terms of the narrative, the film has been compared to ‘Lost in Translation’, and whilst I didn’t connect nearly as much with ‘Anomalisa’ as that film, there are numerous similarities. Both films focus on middle aged men spending time in a hotel, who are shaken out of their malaise by the appearance of a younger woman.
It’s difficult to get a read on the causes of Michael’s loneliness, whether he is suffering from depression or going through a midlife crisis and the film doesn’t clarify in either direction, with this ambiguity working for the better. Michael’s loneliness manifests itself through his perception of the people around him, who all appear with identical faces and voices, including his wife and son. All of these secondary and tertiary characters, both male and female, are voiced by Tom Noonan, apart from Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose brightness is emphasised by this contrast. This gives the impression of every character blending into one in Michael’s head, highlighting the distance he feels between himself and the people surrounding him. I found this stylistic choice slightly jarring, and whilst it undoubtedly makes Leigh’s soft voice stand out, it’s more distracting than effective for the most part. The film has a dreamlike quality and at times I couldn’t be sure how much of what is happening was real and how much was in Michael’s head. The core of the story appears to be real but the film provides just enough hints that Michael could have imagined the whole experience.
The small cast of ‘Anomalisa’ use their voices to make their characters distinctive, with Tom Noonan perhaps having the hardest task as he covers a variety of characters. David Thewlis uses his Yorkshire accent to good effect as the downbeat Michael, often giving off a desperate vibe, whilst Leigh instantly stands out as the only female voice in the entire film. Thewlis and Leigh’s moments together have a kind of awkward charm as these two characters bond and try to overcome their lack of confidence around one another, ultimately leading to a puppet sex scene, which is awkward not for the fact it involves puppets, but for the very real approach to adult intimate experiences. This certainly isn’t a Hollywood depiction and the interactions between the characters feels natural. I also liked the use of subtle jokes and sight gags, particularly when it focused on the tiring interactions with taxi drivers and service staff, which will feel painfully real to anyone who has had a long day and wants to be left alone!
Where I struggled with ‘Anomalisa’ was with Michael himself, who I found to be a difficult character to connect with, and I thought the film often struggled to get across why he warranted our pity. There are moments of great beauty, such as a captivating scene when Lisa sings ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ by Cyndi Lauper, but the film didn’t scale those heights often enough for me. ‘Anomalisa’ is another original piece of work from Charlie Kaufman and in a cinematic landscape filled with sequels, remakes and generic action movies and romcoms, this should be cherished, but I didn’t connect with it as much as I’d hoped too.
Directed By: Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan