Review: Anomalisa

By Christian DiMartino

The first time I was introduced to the work of Oscar winner Charlie Kaufman was in 2009, when I first watched Being John Malkovich. The film, written by Kaufman and directed by Oscar winner Spike Jonze (Her), revolved around an awkward puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack) who, at his place of business (he works at an odd little office named Lester Corp, on the 7 1/2 floor), discovers a portal that takes you into the mind of John Malkovich, the actor, for fifteen minutes. After that, you are spat out onto the New Jersey turnpike.

If that sounds jarring, it’s probably because it is. But as I watched Being John Malkovich, I just fell in love with it even more. You sense that there is a pure, creative screenwriting voice at play, and the craziness and the invention constantly being thrown at you is bizarre, fascinating, and utterly hilarious all at once. Since that film, Kaufman has lived up that promise.

Human Nature was a weird film, but an original one. Adaptation is brilliant, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is severely underrated, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is genius, Synechdoche, New York, his directorial debut, is maddening but terrific. And now he has brought us Anomalisa, and it is a gift from above. A masterpiece of the highest caliber.

All of the films he’s had involvement in are all a little weird and funny, but yet most of them contain an underlying sadness. Anomalisa is no different.

Directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, and based off of a sound-play (because that’s apparently a thing) by Kaufman, Anomalisa sports stop-motion animation in a beautiful manner. A film like this probably shouldn’t be animated, but yet, after seeing it, I don’t know if I could imagine it in any other format. It’s an odd little trick that works wonders.

The film revolves around a depressed Englishman named Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), who travels to Ohio for a conference. On his way to the airport, we see him interacting with his wife and kid (he’s unhappily married), a fellow passenger, a cab driver (who loves chili and the zoo), and a few other people. I normally wouldn’t point this sort of thing out, but it actually has a meaning to the film, as does pretty much everything.

These people (wife and all) all kind of have the same face, and coincidentally, they all have the same voice. That voice is the voice of veteran actor Tom Noonan, who is credited as “everyone else.” Everyone that Michael meets all sounds the same, and that’s because it’s the same voice. It’s a quirky, unique little trick, but Kaufman uses it for a reason.

Once at the hotel Fregoli (which is some psychology term or something), he soon meets up with an old flame. This doesn’t go well. But then he meets Lisa, a fan of Michael’s work who is there with a friend just to listen to Michael’s speech. This probably wouldn’t matter anywhere else, but actually, Lisa is different: when he hears her, he doesn’t hear Noonan. He hears a different voice entirely. This is the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh, and he immediately falls in love with it. He is relieved to hear a different voice, and he is immediately drawn to her.

The film is essentially about an affair, but it goes a bit deeper than that. Michael isn’t exactly a man that we should root for, but yet his sadness has an undeniable effect on us, and so does his happiness. Perhaps it is the magic of the voicework. Thewlis is pitch perfect in the role. We shouldn’t care about him, but yet we cannot stop watching for him, and rooting for everything to work out.

Leigh is utterly wonderful in the role. You notice a sweet innocence in her voice. It’s a beautifully nuanced performance that feels so real, that you’d almost think it was live-action. Noonan is a hoot, whether he is playing women or whatever.

The film isn’t just a work of beauty emotionally; it’s a work of beauty visually as well. The production design is simple, but yet it all looks so real. As does the animation itself. I don’t know if I’ve seen an animated film quite like it. We see nudity, and sex, and there’s F-bombs, but yet it’s a tender piece of work.

There are moments here that are undeniably funny, but by the end, you get a taste of reality that you probably aren’t expecting. One would expect a happy ending, but yet Kaufman isn’t willing to let us off easy. The ending is abrupt, but yet it works well on its own terms.

I probably wouldn’t recommend Anomalisa to everyone, but if you ask me, it’s a towering achievement that easily ranks among the year’s best films. I think you should see it, otherwise you may not believe it.

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