Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a husband, father and successful motivation speaker, is crippled by the mundanity of his life. On yet another business trip he checks into a clinically commonplace hotel once more. But this time a chance meeting with Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an unassuming, small-town sales rep, throws the dullness into disarry and Michael feels he may have actually met someone who can make a change. From the mind of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and animation master Duke Johnson comes "Anomalisa", a tender, touching and achingly funny black comedy, filmed entirely in extraordinary stop motion animation.
I found Anomalisa to be the equivalent of peeling a ripe satsuma only to find that half the segments are missing - well-structured and beautifully packaged, but strangely unsatisfying.
The morose, lethargic Michael Stone endures a banal and joyless existence. It's difficult to feel sorry for him, though, as his unhappiness is largely self-imposed. We learn that several years ago he walked out on long-term girlfriend for no explicable reason, and even though there's nothing evidently amiss in his present marriage, he seems to find it a chore just to talk to his wife and son on the phone. All the human beings Michael interacts with have the same face and voice - one assumes that this is really just an externalisation of his own misanthropic world-view and his refusal to see meaning or beauty in everyday life. Until, that is, he meets Lisa - who, significantly, doesn't have the same production-line face as the other inhabitants of the hotel, and is voiced by a different actor.
What follows could have been an exceptionally tender and well-observed story about 21st Century romance and dating, about chronic discontent and our illusion that the grass is always greener on the other side. The problem is that there is insufficient screen time devoted to the development of the central story (at least, what I assume is meant to be the central story) - Michael and Lisa's romance. This is partly because of the relatively short running time, which I suppose may have been the result of financial constraints as it was a crowd-funded endeavour. But the frustrating thing is that Charlie Kaufman could have done a lot more with those 90 minutes if he had left out some of the diversions, sub-plots and other unnecessary boondoggles. The film contains one of the most tediously over-extended sex scenes I've ever witnessed (yes - that's right - puppet sex!). Then there's a sequence half way through where he is summoned to the manager's office and it seems we're about to venture into sci-fi or conspiracy thriller territory. But just as we're seemingly on the brink of a "big reveal", Michael wakes up and realises he'd been having a nightmare! I can't remember the last time I felt so cheated! There is also a creepy subplot involving Michael's infatuation with a mechanical geisha doll he has bought from a sex shop - is this supposed to be saying something about objectification of women? Or that we don't really desire human interaction as much as we think we do? To make things even more confusing, there are hints that some of the scenes involving Lisa may have been figments of Michael's imagination.
Of course you have to admire the craftsmanship involved. The sets are amazingly detailed and realistic, and I've learned that over 100,000 separate still shots had to be undertaken, which is an astonishing undertaking in itself. So giving it less than 5 out of 10 might seem a bit mean-spirited. But it could have been so much more if Kaufman had shown a bit more self-discipline, had kept his eye on the ball and hadn't tried to overcomplicate things.
Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa is probably the most daring picture of his career if not of American animation. I’ve become so used to animation being so broadly appealing for being such an expensive medium. If not it’s not a picture built for the family, it’s a raunchy excursion aimed at the college kids. You need only look to last year’s kid-friendly Shaun the Sheep Movie and the strictly-stoner comedy Hell and Back. But Anomalisa occupies a different genre of animation, embodying a more surreal psychological tale that only Kaufman could conceive so well. It will hopefully be remembered as a surprisingly human experience with stop-motion animation and not just the one stop-motion movie with a sex scene.
Based on Kaufman’s 2005 play of the same name, the film finds self-help author Michael Stone attending a conference at a hotel. The man is damaged in the way that everyone around him appears to have the same face and voice - that of an ordinary male. Everyone in his life is seen as false which includes his wife and young son. Even an old flame that he rings up in town does little to thrill him for the chance of a one night stand. But as Michael forlornly walks ambles around the hotel the night of the conference, he hears a female voice in the hotel hall. That voice belongs to Lisa, a simple and ditzy customer service rep in town for Michael’s talk. Her simplicity matters not to Michael who finds himself at ease to discover that she has a unique face as well.
As the only person that stands out in his life, Michael naturally showers her with genuine compliments until convincing her to join him in his room. This leads to a scene with physical intimacy between the two of them with a surprising amount of detail both visually and emotionally. This is a rather crucial scene in which the movie could have fallen apart at the seams. Sex has become such tainted ingredient of cinema in the 21st century that it needs to be handled with great care to achieve a certain level of intimacy and eroticism. This goes double for animation, especially with stop-motion figures that could easily conjure up memories of the satirical sex in Team America: World Police. But, thanks to spectacular animation, the romance of this scene comes through beautifully where modern movies usually falter. Michael and Lisa move slowly into the action, carefully letting the awkwardness and humor of the situation slip away with each kiss and fondle.
The question eventually arises with such a story: Why use stop-motion animation? There are no grand moments of fantastical locations or any otherworldly creatures to be conceived. No chases, explosions, visual gags, musical numbers or battles are to be had. Could it have been filmed in live action? Yes, but that isn’t the point. Animation can embody any genre and make it sing with its own visual flair. There are plenty of little details to admire in Anomalisa’s craftsmanship. The scene where Michael arrives in his hotel room and quietly orders room service may seem like a nothing moment, but take a look at the tiny accuracies of the frame. Everything from the way Michael breathes while having a smoke to texture of his neatly-made bed is perfectly assembled and animated to be believable. Even when there doesn’t seem to be much going on, there is always something going on in the frame.
The most interesting aspect of this style is how Kaufman leaves in some of the strings and uses them to great effect. A common method for assembling complex stop-motion figures is to assemble the face in two parts - a top half for the eyes and a bottom half for the mouth. The line separating these two sections of the face is usually removed digitally, but Kaufman leaves it in for Anomalisa. It becomes a trippy aspect of the film the way Michael notices this crack and begins to tug at it. A dark nightmare later reveals the bottom half of his face falling off, exposing the mechanics of his constructed mouth. It’s a scene that answers the curiosity of the movie-goers that want to figure out the specifics of this animation process, but still delivers on a sense of losing perspective in Michael’s warped world.
While Anomalisa’s themes of love and the loss of passion become rather blunt towards the end, I found myself captivated with the slightly off world Kaufman concocted. Adult animation has rarely seen such challenging sophistication and it’s refreshing to finally see a picture that dares to be more than the usual on such a cheap budget. The results are astounding for a movie that relied on a Kickstarter campaign which expanded the project from a short film to feature length. Had it gone through traditional channels for a higher budget, I doubt it would have ever seen the light of day. And if it did, chances are it would involve drugs and a raunchier sex scene.