Wednesday, January 27, 2016

ANOMALISA: A Stop Motion Emotional Masterpiece

Now playing at a indie art theater near you (and at least one multiplex near me):

ANOMALISA (Dirs. Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman, 2015)

At first, Charlie Kaufman’s stop motion animated follow-up to his toweringly brilliant 2008 opus SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, is a very strange experience.

Yet after a little while, I started to forget that I was watching life-like 3D-printed puppets, and began to feel like I was watching real people – sad, lonely, restless real people, who were much more affecting than in most dramas that actually feature real people.

But then the filmmakers, Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson, would do something like having the protagonist’s face malfunction (and even detach like a mask), and I would be jarringly reminded what I was really viewing.

There’s also the element of that every character, men and women, except for the two leads is voiced by the same actor – Tom Noonan, who previously appeared in a pivotal role in SYNECDOCHE, who is actually credited here as “everyone else.” This takes a little getting used to, especially as there are times that Noonan sounds erringly like a soft-spoken Jimmy Fallon.

David Thewlis, best known for his role as Remus Lupin in the HARRY POTTER films, voices the principal protagonist, the middle-aged Michael Stone, author of the bestseller “How May I Help You Help Them: 5 Ways To Improve Customer Service.” Thewlis’ Michael, who at times sounds like a drunken Pierce Brosnan, has come to Cincinnati for a speaking engagement and after we witness him making awkward chit–chat with a cabbie, his hotel clerk, and busboy – again, all Noonan-voiced, but also with the same non-descript faces – he gets antsy and phones an ex named Bella, who lives in town that he hasn’t spoken to for over a decade.

Despite her shock at his call, Bella agrees to meet him for a drink at the hotel bar. The meeting doesn’t go well and Bella storms off. Later, Michael desperately and frantically finds himself running down his hotel’s hallway knocking on doors claiming he’s looking for a friend. He happens upon the room of two women, Emily and Lisa, a couple of sales reps who drove from Akron just to see Michael’s speech. Noonan voices Emily (again same face as everyone else), but Jennifer Jason Leigh, in her second stellar performance of 2015 after THE HATEFUL EIGHT, provides the slightly chubby, but pretty and nervously charming Lisa’s voice.

Michael invites them out for a drink – by this time he’s had a half a dozen Belvedere martinis – and the three share some laughs together. On the way back to their rooms, Michael asks Lisa if she’ll have a nightcap with him. Emily encourages Lisa to accept the offer (“he’s gorgeous”), and Lisa and Michael retire back to his room.

Michael is thoroughly taken by Lisa – continually telling her how lovely she is, exuding a loving warmth while she talks about her day and especially as she sings an acapella rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” (she even does an Italian language version of the song). Lisa talks about learning the word “anomaly” from Michael’s book and relating to the term, and he dubs her “Anomalisa.”

Before you know it, we’re watching puppet porn, but, don’t worry, it’s nothing like the infamous sex scene in TEAM AMERICA. Somehow it’s about as tasteful as stop motion puppet intercourse can be.

After that, the film goes on a surreal tangent with a dream sequence in which Michael is called to an office in the hotel’s basement by the hotel manager, who tells Michael that he loves him, and that he shouldn’t be with Lisa.

Michael awakens and, in his shaken state, proposes that he wants to leave his wife and run off with Lisa. Things get screwy though when Michael has a bit of a breakdown at his keynote talk, and the film cuts to him returning to his wife, 5-year old son, and a bunch of surprise party people at his home – all, again, voiced by Noonan with that same damn face.

ANOMALISA is based on a play Kaufman wrote for composer Carter Burwell’s “Theater of the New Ear” series of what were called “sound plays” that was produced with the same cast in 2005, which explains Michael’s speech/rant that calls out the President as being “a war criminal.”

It’s great that the sex scene and the slew of f-bombs dropped make the film the first R-rated animated movie that’s ever gotten an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, but I think it should’ve picked up a Best Screenplay nomination as well. Not one line of dialogue felt convoluted or off at all – as a written work, ANOMALISA is a flawless concoction.

But it’s also a beautifully acted and aesthetically pleasing piece, in which Thewlis and Leigh’s transcendent voice contributions breathe an exuberant amount of humanity into these abstract proceedings.

Yet again, Kaufman has made a movie that nobody else would make – or even think of making, even if he had help via co-director Johnson. Like just about every movie he’s made – from the mindblowing movies he’s written (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) to his directorial debut (SYNECDOCHE) – it’s brainy brilliance with a battered heart. 

A drama about real life using the fakest of props that somehow says more about confused loneliness than any other movie in recent memory, ANOMALISA is Kaufman’s latest masterpiece. Seek it out to see the most emotion anybody’s ever put into stop motion.

More later...

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