Film Reviews

‘Anomalisa’: Poignancy with Puppets

A surprisingly funny and touching animated gem from the mind behind 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'

My sister-in-law once pondered whether life was full of “extras”. As in, when the grocery store clerk seems identical to the dude who pumped your gas a week ago, is it because they’re related? Or are they the same person? (Cue the Twilight Zone theme!) Is life a Truman Show-esque bit, where you travel from place to place yet the faces in the background stay the same everywhere because they follow you wherever you go? We know it’s a trick of the mind, logically impossible. Still, deep within us we recognize this situation as a truth beyond truth. It’s one of those meta realities that are the specialty of Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation). The writer-director returns to the big screen with another mind-bending study of the human condition, called Anomalisa. And this time it’s with puppets. (Stop-motion puppets, so no, Being John Malkovich wasn’t being prophetic!)

Anomalisa in a Nutshell

The plot, such at it is, follows middle-aged corporate self-help guru Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis). Michael is in a hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio for a one-night stay. The same hotel that’s having a customer service convention where he’s scheduled as a speaker. He lands, checks-in, orders room service, bathes, calls an old flame over for drinks, tries to cheat on his wife with her, fails and sulks. That’s just the first half-hour or so. Riveting, right? What’s interesting about such lame mundanity?

But wait, fellow reader, this is Charlie Kaufman we’re talking about, as in the writer behind Eternal Spotlight of the Spotless Mind. The man’s work is nothing if not compelling, so trust me when I say Anomalisa is much more than the sum of its parts. It also manages to be very funny and even poignant. Still need convincing? Did I mention that every person in the airport, the hotel, the city, this whole world, has the same face? And that all of them, even the women, share the same voice? Yup, that of actor Tom Noonan (Last Action Hero; Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York). He is credited here as “Everyone else”. Therefore, Noonan now holds the honor of the best movie cast credit listing ever.

“They all look alike to me,” thinks Michael Stone (David Thewlis) in Anomalisa. (SOURCE: Paramount Pictures.)

Delusions of Dullness

So it’s like my sister-in-law, only worse. Most of the film takes place at the Hotel Fregoli. This is a subtle hint from Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson that Michael might suffer from the Fregoli delusion. I’ll save you the Wikipedia visit. It’s a disorder where you convince yourself that certain people are all in fact the same person. You may believe either they changed their face or are in disguise. (For another take on this idea, check out creep-fest It Follows.)

So Michael, in essence, hasn’t met a unique person in years, possible ever. Because of this he is miserably depressed, as well as a bit of a dick. Suddenly, while having an existential moment in the bathroom, he overhears something new from the hall, a DIFFERENT voice. He follows it and meets Lisa Hesselman (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) a shy conference attendee. The rest of Anomalisa deals with Michael and Lisa spending the night together and how the encounter affects them both.

A Puppet Show Worth Your Time

The project began in 2005 as an audio play by Kaufman starring Thewlis, Leigh and Noonan, accompanied by on-stage Foley sound artists and a live score by composer Carter Burwell. Kaufman hadn’t intended it to be more that. Around 2012, executives at Starburns Industries (which include Community creator Dan Harmon) asked the scribe for permission to turn it into a stop-motion animated film under Johnson’s supervision. Nearly four years and a successful Kickstarter campaign later, Johnson and Kaufman turned the source material into possibly the most compelling animated film ever to depict the psychological reasons behind adultery.

There’s so much more to discover and talk about in Anomalisa. Like, for instance, how expressive the 3D-printed faces of the models turn out to be. This despite (or maybe because) of their noticeable imperfections. Still, better for me to not to reveal all its surprises.

In essence, Anomalisa is like nothing you’ve ever seen in a theater before and possibly will ever see again, unless Pixar decides one day to adapt a Vertigo comic. You may or may not enjoy it, but if you’ve ever complained about the lack of originality in cinema, you owe yourself a look-see. You can definitely tell Anomalisa apart from all others.

FUN FACT: The resemblance of the stop-motion models in Anomalisa is based on real people other than their respective voice actors. Lisa’s likeness is that of actress Leslie Murphy. Michael’s resembles co-director Duke Johnson’s ex brother-in-law. Who, according to a Lincoln Center Film Society interview, just so happens to be Victor Garber. Yes, THE Victor Garber from Alias, Titanic, Argo and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.

Now showing only in theaters.


Movie title: Anomalisa

Movie description: A surprisingly funny and touching animated gem from the mind behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Date published: 2016-02-23

Director(s): Duke Johnson

Actor(s): David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Genre: Drama, Comedy, Animation


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