Sunday, February 14, 2016

'Anomalisa' review

I've never seen a movie like Anomalisa before and I don't think that I'll ever see one quite like it again. You can't say that about many films, but you can say it about this one- it's a wholly unique motion picture.

Mysterious, charming, and absolutely unforgettable, Anomalisa is a truly haunting movie experience. While you're watching it, you probably won't know exactly what to think. After all, this is a very bizarre film- an R-rated drama told entirely with lifelike puppets (the work of stop-motion master and co-director Duke Johnson). But Charlie Kaufman's latest exploration of the human condition will linger in your mind. It finds a place in your subconscious and hangs there, eating away as you begin to discover and reflect on all of the perfect nuances that complete this terrific film. Minimalist in scope, but epic and provocative in theme, Kaufman's existential crisis of a movie is stunningly profound and thoroughly satisfying, coming in at a fleeting 90 minutes and shaking the audience to their core. Some movies will thrust their greatness on you immediately. Anomalisa is the antithesis of that- it's the instant classic that you don't expect.


Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is stuck. An accomplished customer service expert, Michael leads a solid life with a nice family. But Michael feels nothing. In his eyes, his life is completely and totally dull. Mundane, banal, humdrum, routine- any synonym that you can find, it fits Michael's feeling of his life. In one of the film's boldest strokes, Michael literally sees everyone else as a different variation of the same person, all voiced by Tom Noonan. As he spends a weekend in Cincinnati for a speech, everything seems the same, and even a reunion with an old love feels empty. But then something changes. Michael meets a woman. Her name is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and she's the most beautiful, extraordinary person he's ever seen, with a voice that soothes his soul. And over the course of one night, Michael may just find hope in a world drowned out by noise.

This doesn't sound too exciting right? If you read that and went "Well, that sounds pretty boring," I encourage you to give it a chance. Anomalisa doesn't seem like much at first. It's set mostly in one location- a nondescript Cincinnati hotel- and deals with a character going through a rather subtle existential crisis. There are very few flashy effects, the puppet animation is initially a little creepy, and there's no complex story with twists and turns. But if you're able to get past the surface of Anomalisa, you'll find an absolute gem of a film that is wise, captivating and completely engrossing. It's deeply profound, completely hilarious, and 100% original- simply put, it's something that you don't see too much in today's Hollywood.


It's easy to get lost in the thematic philosophies of Anomalisa. After all, I think that the complexity and abstract intelligence of Kaufman's film is the main reason that it works so beautifully well. But to focus only on the subtle brilliance of Anomalisa would be a bad mistake. This film is also a phenomenal observational comedy with touches that only Kaufman could throw in. Anomalisa isn't filled with punchlines or crazy laugh-out-loud jokes- instead, it looks at the craziness of society with sharpness and wit. Some of the situations in Anomalisa cut like a knife, and the conversations and sequences had me rolling over with laughter in an unusual way. Whether it's a scene in the back of a taxi cab, an interaction at a hotel with a bizarre desk manager, or a bunch of soulless corporate talk, Kaufman's film is tremendously funny.

There's also some truly terrific technical wizardry in this film, highlighted by the clever voice work and what I believe to be the most effective suspension of disbelief in recent movie history. The puppets in Anomalisa are incredibly life-like. Their facial expressions feel accurate, they're completely anatomically correct, and they move in a mostly human fashion. But they still look bizarre and I thought that might be a struggle for me while watching this film. What I found was a film that felt completely real. I didn't ever feel like I was watching a group of puppets- I felt like I was watching human characters interact. For me, that's one of the strongest accomplishments of this film. That's a feat that not even Inside Out was able to accomplish. The guise of puppetry vanishes and it penetrates right to the heart of the story.


The voice work is equally amazing, with only three actors in the cast carrying the weight of the film. David Thewlis, the esteemed British actor best known for his work in Harry Potter, brings so much to the role of Michael Stone that I really can't see any other actor playing that role. Sarcastic and genuine in equal measure, Stone is a devastatingly dynamic character with a tragic arc that is so compelling to watch. And without Thewlis, I'm not sure that it would be the same. Jennifer Jason Leigh is also fantastic as Lisa, crafting a lovable, shy, sweet introvert and creating the film's most likable character. And finally, we can't underestimate the contribution of Tom Noonan. He voices every other character in the film and it's truly extraordinary to watch.

There's one more thing that must be discussed in regards to this film. It has been one of the hot button topics surrounding Anomalisa since it first premiered in Venice, and that is the lengthy and incredibly realistic puppet sex scene that works as the centerpiece of the film. Now, if you say the words "puppet sex" to someone, the first movie that will probably come to mind is Trey Parker and Matt Stone's classic comedy Team America: World Police, which features a graphically over the top scene of animated intercourse. Anomalisa is the complete opposite of that. I was stunned by what I felt while this scene played out- I wasn't uncomfortable and it certainly wasn't weird. Instead, I felt like I was watching a genuine scene of love. There's lots of sex in movies. But there's very little true romantic passion and awkwardness. That's one of the sheer pleasures of Anomalisa- it feels so truly real.

But as with all good things, Anomalisa comes to an end. And that conclusion will leave some people completely unsatisfied. I can easily see some people being frustrated and angered by this film. I urge those people to look closer. Anomalisa is not pessimistic or angry or shut off from the world. This movie is a warning- a call to arms if you will. By telling the tragic story of Michael Stone, Anomalisa is advocating the experience of life. Don't just keep doing the same things. Live in the now, do something new, have fun. This is the message of this little masterpiece of a movie and I think that it will continue to resonate for a very, very long time.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.2/10)



Image Credits: Indiewire, Youtube, Variety

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