Charlie Kaufman has become a name to behold in entertainment. He's known for his offbeat cinema that often changes our perspective on a once predictable genre. Kaufman has done this once again with co-director Duke Johnson in a film that has shocked the festival circuit. The title Anomalisa sounds strange, but much like the feature itself, it's best enjoyed without knowing too much about it. Strangely enough, I left the film feeling somewhat mixed. I took some time before writing this review, because I had to give it a night to settle in my mind. Within twenty-four hours, I couldn't stop myself from thinking about it, and ultimately determined that Anomalisa is absolutely brilliant. The film that I was most excited about seeing at this year's AFI FEST just might be my favorite of the year.
When a man (David Thewlis) travels to Cincinnati to give a speech on customer service, he must come face to face with his depression. The mundane aspects of his life have driven him mad. Craving more out of life, he meets a young woman by the name of Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who could possibly change his boring life forever.
The goals of a narrative include engaging audiences and crafting relatable characters. In Anomalisa, we're treated to a very different kind of lead role. It doesn't take long to realize that Michael isn't a very good person. He's extremely selfish, as he never hesitates when it comes to the attempt to have an affair. While we aren't given much information regarding his relationship with his wife, he clearly doesn't connect with his son very well either. The young boy is only interested in materialistic "things," as they to have even a simple discussion with each other without the question of toys coming up. Nevertheless, Michael is quick to completely turn his back on his family when he sees a possible happiness of his own. We despise his self-absorbed nature, yet remain engaged in his narrative. The audience still wants to see things turn out well for him. On the other side of the relationship is Lisa, who is depicted as a woman with an incredibly low self-esteem. When being flirted with, she continues to ask, "Why do you like me?" and stating, "I don't understand why you'd want to kiss me there." We begin to feel pity for her, as she's so desperate for an interaction with Michael, that she's willing to split a marriage in the process. Even though these characters sound unlikable, these traits ultimately make the film feel a lot more human. People aren't perfect, and sometimes we do bad things in our search for happiness.
Kaufman's screenplay continues this idea of depicting the human experience through his brilliant screenplay. The film starts off displaying mundane tasks of landing at the airport, checking in at a hotel, and getting room service. Anomalisa utilizes the mundane in order to immerse us in this world of depression. On the way to the hotel, he's forced to engage in an awkward conversation with the taxi driver which is an incredibly relatable. Since we're viewing the world from Michael's perspective, there are a few stylistic choices made that sound odd, but actually support the picture's goals. Regardless of gender, the voice of every character other than Michael and Lisa are that of the same actor (Tom Noonan). There is no attempt made to change the pitch of the voice, as Michael views absolutely everybody as being the same. Nobody interests him, which is depicted by the lack of variety in voices and appearances. When he finally meets Lisa, he's delighted to hear a new voice that makes him fall head over heels. This is a very clear piece of symbolism, although Kaufman has an abundance of sub-text that truly aids the narrative in delivering its impact.
Anomalisa deals with a lot of dark subject matter, but Kaufman incorporates a lot of humor throughout. Since he's often depicting the human experience, it only makes sense for there to be comedy, as life can often be funny. Much of the humor is either rooted in awkwardness or sex, but it's introduced in all of the right moments. The jokes are consistently laugh-out-loud caliber, which greatly helps in moving the film along, as well as complimenting the darker topics. The film is so utterly absorbing, that when the credits began to roll, I was shocked to discover that the feature had come to an end. The pacing is so smooth, that a ninety minute film went by as if it had only been thirty minutes. Who knew that a narrative about such dark subject matter could be this fun and absorbing? Needless to say, this is a picture with a huge amount of replay value.
Despite the fact that this is certainly an adult dramedy, it's entirely captured in stop-motion animation. It also happens to be the first time that Kaufman has experimented with stop-motion in a feature-length format, yet he manages to utilize it incredibly well. Dozens of other features out there are captured with the use of this form of storytelling, yet Kaufman and Johnson manage to make it feel unique and unlike anything else. The puppets look real enough to be believable, but not so real that it takes away from the charm of stop-motion animation. This is visual design utilized in a way that truly adds an element to both the narrative and the tonal structure of both the comedic and the dramatic aspects.
Anomalisa is simultaneously complex, funny, heartbreaking, and sincerely spellbinding. It makes you feel so many emotions, that it completely shocks the system, which caused me to feel so many mixed feelings immediately after the credits started rolling. However, I discovered its absolutely brilliance within a day of viewing it. Some contrarians may be quick to call this an overwhelmingly male-driven feature, which it is, but it works in this given context. It fulfills Kaufman's charmingly dark style of filmmaking to perfection. This is the type of movie that one could get more out of with each repeat viewing. Anomalisa is a genius telling of a moment in the human experience. It just might be the best film of 2015. DVD Talk Collector Series.
Anomalisa played at AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi on November 10th and November 11th.