‘Anomalisa’ Review: A Stop-Motion Masterpiece From Charlie Kaufman
A business trip to Cincinnati’s pretty mundane material for a stop-motion animated movie. Why not just shoot this story in live action? As Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa begins, there’s no obvious answer to that question. A man flies into Ohio to present a speech to a customer service conference. He checks into his room at the Hotel Fregoli and thinks of an ex-girlfriend who lives in the area. These are completely ordinary events and people. Kaufman and Johnson could have been filmed them with human actors at much less expense and difficulty. Quickly, though, idiosyncracies begin to appear in the film’s depiction of reality — anomalies, you might call them — and it becomes clear that the stop motion is an essential element of both Anomalisa’s concept and execution, both of which are absolutely perfect.
The man traveling to Cincinnati is Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis). He checks in with his wife and son back home, but his mind keeps drifting to an old flame. He convinces her to come visit him at the Fregoli, and they meet at the bar. Around this point, it becomes clear that everyone in Anomalisa except Michael — man or woman, old or young — speaks with the same flat monotone (Tom Noonan), and share the same blank puppet face. But then Michael meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose unique voice and face dazzles him. Their relationship becomes the central one for the rest of the film, which is simultaneously a hilarious comedy about the millions of tiny annoyances about business travel and hotel life, a tender love story about a special connection between two people, and an intensely serious drama about depression, masculinity, sexuality, loneliness, insecurity, identity, and about a million other things.
Kaufman explored the power of puppetry in his script for Being John Malkovich, and he confirms it here. The Michael and Lisa figures are so incredibly expressive (with faces that are split horizontally at the eyes to enhance their range of emotions) and the filmmakers show a lot of them (translation: full-frontal puppet nudity). But Kaufman and Johnson’s use of sound is equally impressive as the intricate visuals. (Kaufman originally wrote Anomalisa as “sound play”; according to Being Charlie Kaufman, it was performed “from behind a desk on-stage, accompanied by an orchestra and a foley artist making sound effects - just like the old-style radio plays, before a live audience.”)
If Anomalisa was just formally brilliant, it would be worth seeing for that alone. But it’s also as emotionally moving as it is intellectually stimulating. Puppets or not, Michael and Lisa are amongst the richest and most human characters in any movie in recent memory, and Kaufman remains without peer among working directors at simultaneously critiquing and empathizing with his lovably flawed characters’ and their bottomless neuroses.
At a film festival with hundreds of other films, Anomalisa stands alone in a class by itself. It’s the funniest movie at Toronto, and the most heartbreaking, and the most weirdly beautiful. If the projectionist had offered to restart it as soon as it was over, I would have gladly remained in my seat and watched the entire thing again. One viewing simply wasn’t enough. 10 might not be.
That’s why my initial plan for the lede of this review was just to write the release date and a simple message: “See this movie.” But it seems the movie doesn’t have a U.S. distributor yet. So you’re going to have to do some work to track this one down. But I promise you this: It will be worth it. If it does get released in 2015, it is almost certainly the best film of the year.