Anomalisa
Paramount // R // December 30, 2015
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted January 1, 2016
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Certain animated films receive acclaim for pushing the boundaries of what the medium can accomplish, whether it's through the technical artistry involved or the depth of the storytelling. At times, they're deserving of the praise for trying something genuinely different; at others, the claims seem like amplified praise for successful but generally traditional animation. Anomalisa, the latest film from the wacky mind of Charlie Kaufman and co-directed by Duke Johnson, certainly falls into that spectrum of innovation, using stop-motion wizardry and highly-detailed, realistic models to tell a subdued story about an aging public speaker's conflict with existence. While gallivanting through a ritzy hotel over the course of Michael Stone's maddening evening, the duo's film careens against cunningly surreal tones and deeply provocative contemplations about family, love, and physical intimacy. The maturity of Anomalisa's perspective truly does expand upon what stop-motion animation can do, though the screwy destination involving the main character's escalating attitude weighs down what's being expressed.

Michael Stone, brought to life by the distinctively entrancing voice of David Thewlis, begins his overnight journey by arriving at an airport in Cincinnati, where he'll be giving a speech at a conference about customer service and his books on the matter. A graying smoker with ties to the city, he checks in at his hotel and with his family before exploring the options that being in the area -- and away from his home life -- might afford him, a curious opportunity given the shakiness of his marriage. After making a few calls from his hotel room and exploring the hotel, Michael begins an evening that confronts his perception of the way his life has played out, taking a particularly interesting turn after he meets a curious stranger, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), that awakens something within him. What ensues is a curious sort of paradox: this man who specializes in enhancing interactions with other people confronts his discomfort and delusions about his own perceptions of those around him, making for a surprisingly eventful evening.

The models and set-designs in Anomalisa aim for as much bona-fide human sensation as possible, allowing facial and vocal nuances to articulate a distinct emotional tempo about Michael's current state. Moving through the Frigelo hotel frequently mesmerizes because of this: coasting through the maze of the realistic hallways and rooms -- both in front and behind the peppered-haired man -- creates a fluid and conscious point-of-view, whether we're looking at something as simple as him pouring a drink from the minibar or as elaborate as sprinting past door after door in a frenzied blur. Directors Kaufman and Johnson pull in close on the motion of the characters' mouths and their eyes to emphasize the humanity of their expressions, directing attention to little details like a frown, a ruffled brow, and the way someone chews their food. There aren't any superfluous artistic decisions made within creating this miraculously lifelike portrait, though it's not without intentionally surreal touches, either.

Anomalisa emerges from a stage play by writer/director Kaufman, and that scope marries flawlessly with the confined space of the hotel and its nearby locations. The events that happens during Michael's stay are fairly ordinary -- drinking in a bar, taking a shower, visiting an adult novelty store -- but they're essential to the film's orientation towards the subtleties of his internal conflicts, expanding on the kind of person that he is, that he once was, and that he's likely to become after the night's over. Channeled through David Thewlis' downbeat yet intriguing vocal tempo, Michael's interaction with the people around him reveal these facets of his personality in a reserved, gradually-paced manner, fleshing out his dejection and desperation as he stirs in his room and contemplates his actions. The pacing tends to be deliberate, relishing the ornate reality created here in a subdued rhythm of events until they're interrupted by Michael's complicated mentality.

Charlie Kaufman's signature introspection and self-doubt once again manifest in Michael's story, twisting in complicated directions around his character's interactions with his mysterious new friend, Lisa, delicately and delightfully played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, as the extent of his neurosis become clearer and clearer. Anomalisa's at its best in a place of understatement and groundedness, though, and there's a point later on where the cerebral pressure extends beyond that, marred by impulsive decisions and knee-jerk reactions that obscure the rational messages being conveyed by Michael's journey through a crisis in his life. For a film so dedicated to a tactful balance between authenticity and whimsy, so dazzling in its prior depictions of crossing boundaries and struggling to withdraw inside them, the culmination of the aging customer-service expert's bout with his existence comes across as unnecessary by comparison. That's a testament to the quality of Kaufman and Johnson's craftsmanship beforehand and how it has transcended the status quo of animation: overzealous theatricality almost feels in contrast with the reality preceding it.


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