Monday, December 28, 2015

Anomalisa (**)

Directed by Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman


Charlie Kaufman's view of the human experience can be so despairing, so bankrupt of cheer and spontaneity, that one must thank their lucky stars that he is incredibly funny, and also that he is an absolute genius. His latest effort is a collaboration with animator Duke Johnson, an adaptation of what he called a "sound play" that he performed the actors David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan over a decade ago. The concept allowed the audience to create the real drama in their minds, as the stage only presented actors reading a script and a foley man creating the sound effects. So how fitting, with the film adaptation, that Kaufman decides to go the route of stop motion animation, a medium that is not limited by the possible. The imagination that the audience provides can have its more proper representation in the animated world, where the possibilities are endless as to what you can visualize. The same actors return; Thewlis playing the protagonist, Michael Stone, Leigh playing Lisa, Stone's infatuation, and Noonan voicing literally everyone else. The result is a dour but sweet experience, a resolutely Kaufman-esque story that treats the banalities of existence as the real tragedy of humanity. This is the first feature from Kaufman since his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, a truly grim film that was so exhaustively challenging to the audience, that only a transcendent performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman could save it from complete impenetrability. Anomalisa is a lot gentler and easier to process. Its bite is much less fierce. Is it possible that the gloomy Kaufman is warming to the brighter side of life?

Michael Stone is a best-selling author, known for his motivational book in instructing customer service behavior. All those who've read his book claim a major jump in productivity and profit. Whatever his system is (the film never tells us), it must really work, as hundreds file into showrooms to hear him speak. Michael has arrived in Cincinnati for another of his lucrative speaking events, and he's immediately bombarded by the overeagerness of the public. The cab driver wants him to visit the famed Cincinnati Zoo. The hotel bellhop seems preternaturally interested in making small talk. In his room, he calls his wife, a conversation in which both involved find themselves walking on eggshells. He calls an ex-girlfriend (ex-fiancĂ©?) who's shocked to hear from him, and their subsequent face-to-face reunion turns sour quickly. Each of Michael's steps is heavy-footed, each movement charged with melancholy, as he tries to find anything he can - women, liquor - to appease his inherent sadness. Everything changes when he hears Lisa, another woman staying in the hotel. There's something unique about her, she just sounds different from everybody else (we hear it too). As it just so happens, she's staying in the hotel to see him speak. When he knocks on her door, she's starstruck. Lisa is staying with a work colleague, a more natural beauty, but Michael is transfixed by Lisa. They have some drinks and Michael invites her to his room. She sings him a Cyndi Lauper song and they make love. For a moment, Michael thinks he has found the affair to last him a lifetime, the person to pull him from the abyss. But is this just another stop on the way back toward the depression that has haunted most of his life? This time, will the happiness stick around?

The hotel that Michael stays at in Cincinnati is called The Fregoli, a heady reference to the Frigoli Delusion which is a syndrome in which a person believes that everyone he meets is actually a single person with a great gift for disguise (Kaufman actually wrote the original play under the pen name Francis Fregoli). What this has to do with Anomalisa is unclear, because Michael never seems quite delusional as he does disillusioned, but it does explain the motif of Tom Noonan's voice. The use of Tom Noonan as every non-Michael/Lisa character has some great moments comedically. He may change his cadence here and there, but there's never anything much higher than his standard modest tone. It takes a moment to register the female voices when Noonan doesn't modulate. It all seems to be heading toward some existential point that never seemed very clear to me. There are few better voices than Noonan's if the goal is to represent monotony, but its mostly effective for laughs. Considering the medium of animation, I was actually disappointed in how little Anomalisa divulges into surreality. The film's story is very straightforward, so straightforward in fact that it seems to struggle to reach its 90 minutes. The voice work from Thewlis and Leigh are both excellent here, with Thewlis especially excelling while getting to flaunt one of the best voices that the movies have had in the last 20 years (is there a more undervalued voice? is there a more undervalued actor? watch Naked (1993) people!). This feels like a minor work from Kaufman, though, a sweet side project from a cinematic artist whose esoteric taste has left him without many outlets to tell his stories (a big chunk of this movie's budget comes from a KickStarter campaign). Anomalisa has been called a masterpiece by some, and there is something striking in it, particularly the direct way in which it taps into sadness. But Kaufman has done this with more precision in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, and those were films with more expansive visions and ambitions. Anomalisa is much simpler, which is a virtue, but it holds it back from real greatness.

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