Review: The quiet devastation of ANOMALISA

Over the course of his film career, writer Charlie Kaufman (Being John MalkovichEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) has proven himself exemplary at the fine art of making me feel like shit and like it. His latest, Anomalisa, continues this trend and marks another splendid entry into the Kaufman canon, blending quirky melancholy, absurdist fantasy and heartbreaking disappointment into a distinctively singular work. It’s also his first foray into stop-motion animation, and he utilizes the medium in a unique way that somehow makes the film feel more human than if the actors were human.

Anomalisa originated from a 2005 stageplay written by Kaufman and was funded in part from a Kickstarter campaign; it’s an intensely personal story he’s been harboring for a long time. Its origins on stage makes sense: the story is small, takes place in only a few setting with only a few characters, and over the course of about a day. Many scenes take place in real-time or close to it.

The film follows a middle-aged business traveler as he spends a night in a high-end Cincinatti hotel before giving a speech the next morning. Within the first few moments of the film, and without it ever being verbally stated, it’s clear the traveler, Michael Stone, is hopelessly lost in life (in a thematic echo to the story and as a nod to Kaufman’s long-standing interest in neuroses and mental disorders, Stone stays at the “Hotel Fregoli,” named after a delusion in which the sufferer thinks multiple people are actually the same person). That he meets the title character and they make a connection almost goes without saying if you’ve so much as seen a trailer, but the true joys of the movie lie in discovery, watching as the world is established and it becomes clear all is not as it should be.

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Anomalisa truly looks like no film that has come before. In a departure from the stop-motion medium’s typical flights of visual fantasy, Anomalisa takes place in an exhaustively realistic (and mundane) world in miniature. Besides the physical spaces the puppets inhabit, the film’s realism comes from its pacing and action. The first act painstakingly follows Stone as he lands in Cincinnati, has a useless conversation with his cabbie and checks in at the hotel. His check-in, in particular, is documented in one slow, methodical take that takes him from the front desk, up an elevator and down a hallway to his room over several minutes.  Nothing “of consequence” happens, but the effect is subtly powerful. In technical terms the “long take” is a bit of a fallacy in animation, but Anomalisa has a few of these very long sequences that contribute to the film’s heightened surreality.

It seems counterintuitive but this film, under the direction of Duke Johnson, depicts moments of emotional and sexual intimacy that are as frank and honest as any I’ve seen on film. The sex scene that has anchored much of the conversation in this film mostly transpires in another of those chilling long takes. If we’re going there, it’s easily the most graphic puppet sex I’ve seen since Team America: World Police.

Much of the joy of watching Anomalisa comes from slowly inhabiting the world, learning the rules and being present in intense emotional moments with the characters so I’ll go light on plot, but rest assured, the film leaves the same kind of emotional wreckage observed in the wake of Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman’s bleakly bittersweet persective on love and loss pulls no punches and leaves just as strong an impression as the truly unique design aesthetic. Highly recommended.

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