Anomalisa is the latest movie from critical screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), based on his own radio play – which he wrote under the pen name Francis Fregoli. With Duke Johnson, Kaufman has adapted into a wonderful animated movie, the first R-rated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a customer service expert who flies into Cincinnati for a conference. He suffers from a psychological condition where everyone he sees has the same face and voice. Isolated he finds a ray of sunshine in the form of Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy and awkward woman who is the only person Michael can recognize.
As a writer and director Kaufman has been known for surreal and psychological themes and Anomalisa is no different. As a basic story about a man having a mid-life crisis who finds a kindred spirit – could have worked as a live-action indie film – most of the movie was set in a hotel. However, the stop-motion animation style gives Anomalisa a distinct character and allowed Michael to see all people the same and gave them the same voice, a world he sees as a genuine blob of sameness.
Anomalisa had a Woody Allen-esque quality. The focus is on two neurotic characters who are drawn to each other – a man who has to isolate himself which is slowly edging him to madness – and a woman is who is constantly talking herself down all the time. Michael’s condition has led to him forcing away the people he loved – including his previous lover – and it makes him a neurotic mess leading to him sabotaging his life. Lisa has a facial scar which is why she was insecure and self-deprecating about her looks and intelligence. She was a sympathetic character and felt like a real person despite being animated. She is an angel who can brighten Michael’s world.
The dialogue also had a Woody Allen air to it, admittedly with more swearing. The movie opens with Michael reading from an angry letter from a jilted lover and Michael suffers from intelligential angst. Lisa also has some elaborate moments of dialogue, taking about interests, work and the influence of Michael’s book. Lisa has a heartbreaking moment when she sings a somber version of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun.’
Tom Noonan voices all the other characters in the movie and brings out the personality of the all the different people. The best examples of these are Bella -Michael’s ex-lover – and Emily, Lisa’s outgoing BFF. Other characters like the hotel staff speak with a monotone, but it is still commendable how Noonan can differentiate most of the different roles.
Kaufman’s fondness for psychological themes and troubled romances are prevalent in Anomalisa. While Kaufman’s previous movies have had a surreal edge to them Anomalisa is a more grounded affair because of its setting, but that doesn’t mean he cannot bring in some surreal references. An example is the hotel in the movie is called the Fregoli which is a name of the disorder Michael suffers (a fact I only found out because of the IMDB trivia page). Kaufman and Johnson allows for surreal moments like when Michael reads an ex lover’s letter and imagines her being there. The dream sequence was similar to Kaufman’s first movie Being John Malkovich and was referencing the classic Terry Gilliam movie Brazil.
Anomalisa has similarities to a British short Butterfly which became the basis for the music video for Keane’s ‘Bedshaped‘. Butterfly and Anomalisa both focus on men suffering through a depression – Michael’s being based on his unusual condition that alters his perception of reality – while the main character in Butterfly suffers inconsolable grief. Like Butterfly, Anomalisa uses stop-motion animation: both have a deliberately ugly look and they are willing to show nudity and necessary bodily functions.
Anomalisa was originally envisioned as a 40-minute short film and it shows with the painfully slow first act. The movie goes into intense detail when it shows Michael landing in Cincinnati as he progresses from the airport, checking into his hotel and going to his room. It’s tedious to watch. Moments from The Simpsons have been cut because the writers and showrunners say if audiences watch people being bored then they would be bored as well. It’s fine for the movie to have a gradual pace when it’s establishing Michael’s relationships with the people around him, but the movie could have easily have cut down its first act considerably, and it wouldn’t have affected the sorry. A skilled screenwriter like Kaufman should know the old screenwriting adage of ‘enter late leave early.’
Fans of Kaufman’s previous movies will certainly appreciate Anomalisa for its themes and romance. It is an intelligent, character-driven drama with the occasional comedic moment, but some casual audiences could be turned off by its slow opening.
Special Features: Anomalisa comes with a recording of a public Q&A session in Soho, London with Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson, and producer Rosa Tran. The DVD also comes with a behind the scenes photo gallery and the theatrical trailer.