Anomalisa (2015)

Anomalisa (2015)
  • Time: 90 min
  • Genre: Animation | Comedy | Drama
  • Directors: Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
  • Cast: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan


Michael Stone, an author that specializes in customer service, is a man who is unable to interact deeply with other people. His low sensitivity to excitement, and his lack of interest made him a man with a repetitive life on his own perspective. But, when he went on a business trip, he met a stranger – an extraordinary stranger, which slowly became a cure for his negative view on life that possibly will change his mundane life.


  • “What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” motivational speaker Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) muses. For Michael, a Brit living in Los Angeles who has touched down in Cincinnati for a speaking engagement, to be alive is to be half-dead, wading through a mire of people who seem intent on bludgeoning him with their incessant small talk.

    It is no accident that Michael checks into a hotel whose name, Fregoli, provides ample explanation not only for his existential crisis but also for directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s decision to employ Tom Noonan to voice all of the characters that Michael encounters. The Fregoli delusion is a rare disorder wherein a person believes that different people are, in fact, one single person who dons many disguises and who is out to persecute them. Indeed, Michael Stone’s entire world appears to have melded into one monotonously droning person, be it the taxi driver who can’t stop recommending that Michael visit the zoo and also try the chili or his wife and child, whom he phones from his hotel room.

    Michael seems out-of-sorts. He thinks of his ex-girlfriend Bella, whose letter excoriating him for their breakup he reads and re-reads. He decides to contact her, she’s taken aback but agrees to meet him for a drink at the hotel bar. Their reunion is awkward – it’s all too clear that Bella has never recovered from his leaving her and it’s painfully evident that Michael is allowing his loneliness to impair his judgment – and it ends sourly. Desperate for companionship, Michael is literally coming apart when he hears a different voice. The voice belongs to Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a fan of his who, along with her friend Emily, is staying at the same hotel. He is beguiled by Lisa, who cannot believe that he would be interested in her over Emily. Their time together steers Anomalisa into pathways that are intimate, enigmatic, surreal, and just plain sad and beautiful.

    Anomalisa, which originated as a sound play for the Theater of a New Ear project in 2005, shares much in common with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another Kaufman-penned tale of a man battling his own fragile psyche. Michael believes Lisa to be his saving grace, that he can perhaps escape the unbearable mundanities of his life and create something new with her. It’s doomed from the start, of course. Kaufman enhances the manner in which a business trip can physically and emotionally remove one from the tethers of everyday reality. The surroundings are familiar, yet oddly alien. Anything is possible, perhaps even happiness, but tomorrow always brings round the reality.

    Anomalisa also addresses the sense that to be human may go hand in hand with being a puppet, that one may never be in control of one’s own destiny for there are too many attachments – marriage, parenthood, career, so many responsibilities. The puppets themselves are disquieting figures – their faces created by 3-D printing, their skins fibrous, and eyes that are remarkable in their expressiveness. Yet these are unmistakably puppets, with very visible seams across their foreheads and around their jawlines. Their faces can be interchangeable in much the same way that humans can present one face to the world but possess a completely different one underneath. And are we individuals, each and every one of us, or are we variations on a single theme?

    Anomalisa contemplates this and much more. Heady themes aside, Kaufman has crafted a love story full of grace that will move you more than you realise. The morning after the night before is poignantly captured; its power may shatter you into pieces.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆½ out of 5)


    IN BRIEF: A serious treatise on loneliness that, while making some intriguing insights, does ramble on and on.
    GRADE: B-

    SYNOPSIS: On a business, trip, a lonely man searches for love among the ruins of his ordinary life.

    I begin this review with a quote from Immanuel Kant: “Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination”. This sums up the film, Anomalisa very succinctly. The film is an imaginative journey into the mind of a sad man who has lost all reason, living a world where everyone is uniformly the same, in voice and appearance.

    Nominated for a 2015 Oscar for Best Animated Film (and finally receiving wider distribution nearly 4 months later), Charlie Kauffman’s stop-motion film has an odd yet intoxicating allure. It is a character study of a lonely man content to live within his own illusions, with reality just outside his grasp.

    David Thewlis voices the character of Michael Stone, a man unable to connect with others. Michael settles for his cloistered existence. His responsibilities to his family and his job ties him down. He is a successful author and keynote speaker, discussing self-help techniques to the masses without the ability to help himself in his private life. On a business trip, he meets various strangers (all voiced by Tom Noonan). A feeling of hopelessness overpowers him. But it isn’t until he finally hears a different voice in the form of Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that he finally awakens to life and all of its wondrous possibilities. He nicknames her Anomalisa (a cross between an anomaly and Lisa herself). Their encounter becomes the crux of the film as MIchael’s sanity slowly becomes unhinged, in the most literal sense.

    Writer / director Charlie Kauffman creates a dreamlike film that is visually captivating but leaves many questions unanswered. (Sharing directing credit is also Duke Johnson.) With its deep philosophical bent, Mr. Kauffman’s screenplay allows for too much intellectualizing and grand-standing of the human condition, interfering with the beauty of his simple tale.

    The film is beautifully staged with wonderful detailed sets by the production team of John Joyce and Huy Vu and a haunting score by the reliable Carter Burwell that adds to the melancholia. The film’s initial premise is intriguing, like experiencing a profound lecture or reading a compelling essay or poem, yet the level of satisfaction will differ with each viewer. Does one like metaphysical debates about the importance of life, happiness, and the general state of the human condition? Is it time well spent or wasted on thought-provoking meaningless observations? Is the glass half-empty, half-full, or not really there at all? Was I caught in a freshman class of Philosophy 101? (As you might tell, my feelings were decidedly mixed.)

    While I enjoyed the film’s animation and the atmospheric toll on the characters, this wisp of a plot edged on monotony, even though the film dealt with some provocative concepts. Technically, the stop-motion aspects are quite effective and achieve a graceful elegance. (Midway, the film takes on a more surreal quality which I personally found more compelling before it reverses itself once again.) But the overall script needed more risks into a wider range of bizarre and weird images that are capable within this animated genre. Instead, Kauffman and Co. settle for a tame strangeness as it trips over in its own wordiness and drawn-out ramblings.

    No doubt this film is a labor of love and, on that, it should be commended. Anomalisa is the type of film project that one can greatly admire, but love never became part of the equation for this reviewer. Like the character of Michael, I just could not connect emotionally. I remained an avid observer and outsider throughout this moviegoing experience, with true happiness just out of my grasp as well.

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  • I keep saying that the story is the base of every movie. If the story is no good the movie will stink too. So it is with Anomalisa. This movie is getting amazing reviews and was nominated for an Oscar that it just doesn’t deserve.
    Let’s look at the story by Charlie Kaufman. It is an ordinary man in a mid-life crisis, Michael Stone. He has become desensitized to people until he meets a fairly quirky but ordinary woman, Lisa Hesselman, with whom he falls in love. This part of the film is long and dragged out with too much time dedicated to inconsequential sequences that don’t advance plot or build character. He starts to see faults in Lisa and then suddenly he’s on a plane home and she’s in a car going to her home with no explanations of what happened as opposed to the over-exposed first half of the film.
    Now comes a Spoiler Alert. If you’d rather find out what’s missing by yourself then jump to the next paragraph. While all this mundane stuff is happening there are several sequences that are never developed or explained. All the characters have seams across and around their faces as if the face were made of three or more parts. After a shower Stone actually starts to pull a section of his lower face off but stops and later in a dream this face section pops off and he sees, in his dream, he is a metal contraption. It’s never mentioned again although all the characters, major and minor, still have those seams. From the very beginning of the movie the lead male character has his own voice but every other character, male or female, has the same voice until the lead male meets the woman who has a female voice. He argues, briefly, that they are the only two real people since they are the only ones with individual voices but then it’s never brought up again. I’m not going to bother trying to figure out why a hotel manager tries to have an affair with Stone.
    Charlie Kaufman needs to examine his story telling. The two most interesting and intriguing elements of the story are never developed and, finally, at the end nothing is developed. It just leaps ahead to new situations that don’t relate to anything else in the story. A party that might have been used to show Stone’s developing insanity doesn’t show anything but his annoyance. The whole story is staggeringly unsatisfying and looks like terrible editing either of the film or the screenplay.
    There are only three actors. Tom Noonan plays everyone but the two leads with a level delivery that seldom goes beyond calm. It creates an unreality that is just not explained. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Lisa Hesselman, the title character, with nice emotional content and never goes too far. David Thewlis plays Michael Stone and also does a nice job with his delivery if only the story line were developed so the delivery went somewhere.
    Along with all this dismal stuff there is some interesting use of stop action animation. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it used to try to create a real human feel for the characters and the sets. However, as they say of stage musicals, no one leaves the theater whistling the sets. The same holds true here. Without a coherent story, nothing else much matters.
    I give Anomalisa 1 cigarette out of 5. It was a waste of my time and money but I give it one for some of the technical work.

  • It’s been 8 years since Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, Synedoche, New York – that great but underappreciated little film about a man (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) who dreamed of building a scale model of New York in a warehouse. The critics seemed to like it but didn’t voice their approval very loudly, and chances are many won’t remember its existence. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, Kaufman’s latest is a stop-motion collaboration with Duke Johnson, an animator probably most famous for his Adult Swim works.

    Beginning with mundane chatter in mundane locations, Anomalisa is in no rush to hit you with any visual splendour, which tends to be the norm for animated films. Instead, we follow our miserable protagonist Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a British motivational speaker whose book on customer service is the handbook for those unfortunate enough to be in the business, as he lands in Cincinnati. He grabs a cab ride with an annoying driver who seems to be completely unaware of Michael’s depressed, frustrated state, and insists he visit the zoo and tries to Cincinnati’s famous chilli. He arrives at his hotel, the Fregoli, where he is unnecessarily escorted to his room by an over-friendly bell boy who informs him of the delights of his standard, mediocre room.

    It’s probably at this point that you’ll realise you haven’t been imagining that all the characters look and sound alike, and instead that this is a deliberate tactic key to understanding the mindset of Michael and the themes of the film. The name of the hotel is a clue, as the Fregoli delusion is a condition that causes a person to imagine everyone else to be the same entity in disguise with the sole purpose of inflicting torment on the sufferer. Here, everyone has the face of an adult white male (even the women and children) and has been blessed with the soothing, distinctive voice of Tom Noonan. It is only when Michael stumbles upon two women in his hotel who are there to see his speech the following day that this spell is broken. One of the two women, Lisa, has a barely noticeable facial disfigurement and sounds like Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Michael is enamoured.

    Michael’s relationship with Lisa, who be dubs ‘Anomalisa’, gives the film a much-needed heart, as this may have otherwise been an exercise in misanthropy. There’s no fantasy romance here, but a dinner date where everyone involved drinks too much, Michael’s awkward invitation for Lisa to accompany him back to his room, and a sex scene which is, ironically, the most realistic I’ve ever seen on film. Michael accidentally rolls onto her hair, she bangs her head, he asks her the awkward question of whether she’s cool with oral sex – there’s certainly no pan to a roaring fireplace,

    You would think that the heightened sense of realism would make the choice to film this in stop-motion slightly redundant, but oddly, it makes the film even more human. It also allows Kaufman and Johnson to show much more of life’s ugliness – we are treated to Michael’s middle-aged stark naked body jumping out of the shower and the sight of a random man across the way getting ready to masturbate in front of his computer. It’s often difficult to sit through. I work in customer services myself and can empathise with Michael’s internal struggle of feeling trapped within himself and that others are barely distinguishable from one another. Don’t expect any tidy resolutions either, Kaufman is intelligent enough to realise that the excitement of meeting an interesting girl is only temporary, and life will still go on. It’s upsetting, certainly, but Anomalisa offers a real insight into the human soul and makes a lasting impression.

    Rating: 5/5

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