Friday, 18 March 2016

Anomalisa (2015)

There are a number of amazing things about this very strange animated film from card-carrying kook Charlie Kaufman, but the most amazing of all is the fact that it was actually Oscar-nominated. Unlike the usual culprits -- Pixar, Ghibli, Aardman -- this is not the expected child-friendly product to pack them into the multiplexes, but a movie directly aimed at an adult audience and one which it will probably be slow to find. Yes, we have had puppet sex before in "Team America", but with doll-like sexless wooden bodies, not with the finely detailed genitalia to be found here in Kaufman's everyman fable.

The second amazing fact is that after his ill-received directing debut ("Synecdoche New York" in 2008 -- admittedly a boxes within boxes complicated movie) no studio would dream of giving him money for a sophomore film, despite his award-winning strengths as a screenwriter ("Being John Malkovich", "Adaptation", and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"). "Anomalisa" began life as a 40-minute voice play. Having formed a working partnership with animator Duke Johnson (which whom Kaufman shares the directing credit), the project was initially funded on Kickstarter, before scrabbling to finance the balance of the production.

Stop-motion animation is a very slow process at the best of times, but Johnson has done an amazing job of bringing Kaufman's play to life, down to the very smallest movements. Their computer-printed unstrung puppets are surreally lifelike as they go about their mundane lives, even if they do seem rather top-heavy and squat. Disturbingly their face-movement joins, usually painted out in post-production, are left in place -- and occasionally shift or even fall apart -- reinforcing the notion that we are watching some sort of parallel world, yet one with haunting implications for us all. A third amazing feature of this movie is that it has a cast of hundreds, but only three voices.

Our 'hero' Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is a successful motivational speaker, who has checked into Cincinnati's bland Hotel Fregoli, before delivering his presentation on improving customer service. We gradually become aware that everyone with whom he interacts from the taxi driver from the airport to the soulless reception clerk to the bell-hop to the bar staff -- men, women, and even children -- all speak with exactly the same voice (all furnished by Tom Noonan) and facially they are indistinguishable. Michael seems to be suffering from Fregoli Syndrome, a condition in which one believes that everyone else is the same person but in a different disguise. He appears to be facing some sort of alienated middle-age crisis, desperately trying to bring some meaning to the emptiness of his own life. He may have written a book titled "Let Me Help You Help Them", but he soon realises that pretending to care about others is impossible when everyone else is identical.

And then he hears a third voice, Jennifer Jason Leigh's homely Lisa who seems to be a light in the darkness -- an anomaly, the 'something different' for which we all search. Michael is enchanted with the possibilities embodied in this plain, sweet, and inexperienced woman, and they soon spend the night together. However, despite his cockeyed dream of a future together, he becomes disenchanted with her perceived failings and dutifully returns to his wife, child, and friends -- all of whom look alike and sound alike. There is no redemption or happy ending for this Everyman, even if Lisa seems to have found something meaningful in their time together.

We are probably more receptive to Kaufman's thesis that we are all potentially lost souls by his embodying this nihilistic philosophy in his slightly skewwhiff puppets, rather than employing real actors with whom we might identify. It's an odd movie that will not set the box-office ablaze, but one that is destined to find its own cult audience, even with the yucky business about the antique Japanese sex 'toy' that he has purchased as a present for his young son. Very weird!    
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