Review: Anomalisa

Anomalisa1

Starring David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson

Out Now in the US

Out March 11 in the UK

An inspirational speaker (David Thewlis) loses his inspiration while attending a conference in Cincinnati to give a speech, but finds his passions re-ignited when he meets scarred phone operator Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Although it is borderline material for Science Fiction Bulletin, there is much that fans of writers like Philip K. Dick will get from viewing Anomalisa, while the natural audience for this stop motion puppet animated (with a little CGI help) movie is those already fans of writer/co-director Charlie Kaufman’s previous work.

Anomalisa deals with questions of reality and individuality in a world that has become largely de-personalised. Every other character in the movie looks the same as each other and all are creepily voiced by Manhunter’s Tom Noonan. The hotel that David Thewlis’s Michael Stone checks into is called the ‘Fregoli’, named after the psychological condition the Fregoli delusion in which everyone else in the world is perceived to be just different aspects of one person.

The world of Anomalisa is defiantly ordinary, with the hotel room (for example) recreated in all its glorious bland conforming detail, such that you could be anywhere in the world. There’s a puppet sex scene in the middle of the film, but in keeping with the recreation of the ‘real’ world this is not a Team America laugh fest, but a considerate and unvarnished depiction of the sometimes awkward, sometimes funny process that ensues when strangers go to bed.

However, there are a couple of moments where the artificial puppet nature of Stone are addressed directly, one as part of a dream sequence (a brilliantly weird bravura bit) but one in the ‘real’ world. Kaufman has tackled this kind of topic before as a writer and director, from his debut with Being John Malkovich (1999, which also featured puppets), through Adaptation (2002, with questions of doubling), to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, raising issues of memory and reality) and his overblown, overly ambitious directorial debut Synecdoche, New York (2008). Anomalisa is a Kickstarter supported retreat from big budget filmmaking (although it did somehow cost $8 million), but not from Kaufman’s trademark big ideas.

By the end, despite his transformative encounter with Lisa, Stone seems to return to his ordinary world little changed. It is, in fact, Lisa—the title character—who emerges from the experience with a changed perspective on herself and the world, and that may be the biggest surprise that Kaufman springs upon his audience in Anomalisa.

Verdict: Up for an Oscar for Best Animated Film, Anomalisa easily outclasses the sentimental pick, Pixar’s Inside Out, but may not be to all tastes, 8/10

Brian J. Robb

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