Running Time: 89 mins
Reviewer: David Gillespie – HCF Official Artist & Critic
Anyone that questions whether animation is an inferior format to convey emotions such as empathy, sadness and fear on the big screen need only look towards such foreign classics as Isao Takahata’s animated, Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Pixar’s Up (2009). It is testament to the creators of these movies that the viewer forgets that they are watching a character derived from an artist’s pen or computer. What they won’t forget are the images that these projects leave with you. I remember a parent claim that they didn’t think they would smile again after viewing the opening 10 minutes of Up.
It was only a matter of time that the screenwriter and director, Charlie Kaufman dipped his toes into the format, complimenting his style of focussing on seemingly normal characters and situations that when scrutinized further seem anything but. By teaming up with animator, Duke Johnson, Kaufman has succeeded in creating his most personal, bleak and original work for some time. Anomalisa is a stop motion, fantasy tale but it won’t be to everyone’s taste and certainly not suitable for children.
The central character is a top customer relation’s writer called George Stone (voiced by David Thewlis). He is a married, middle class English expat travelling to Cincinnati to present to a sold out audience at a customer service convention. On the surface he has every reason to be happy due to having a doting wife and son, wealth, good looks and a successful career. But there is something wrong with George. He has lost his way in life and the ability to emotionally connect with anyone. Perhaps it is a midlife crisis or signs of some form of mental breakdown, but depression and loneliness have taken a hold of his life. It seems that every person he encounters looks similar and answers to him in the same voice (Tom Noonan). This includes a nervous airline passenger that insists on clutching his hand, a rough but chatty taxi driver and a painfully bland porter that greets him on his arrival at the Fregoli Hotel. Kaufman originally called the story Fregoli, the term for a delusional condition where the sufferer believes that multiple people are the same person. This is more than a hint as to where the story will be going.
The solitude of the hotel room does not help George’s predicament. After an awkward telephone conversation with his wife, he calls his old girlfriend Bella with the hope of rekindling old feelings or any feelings for that matter. Ignoring or failing to understand the hurt that he left behind in that relationship only succeeds in further isolation. That is until a chance meeting with a shy service advisor called Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has tickets to attend his lecture. She is relatively plain and intellectually inferior to George, yet he experiences an instant connection to her. In response to this attention, Lisa is flattered if not, a little concerned as to his true intentions.
Anomalisa has all the usual quirky and clever characteristics of Kaufman’s earlier work like Being John Malcovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. A bittersweet score by Carter Burmoil compliments the action perfectly. There is enough surreal and black humour to break the foreboding melancholy, including a misunderstanding at a late night, toy store leading to a hilarious but equally upsetting final scene, a hotel phone crammed with unnecessary food service options and a rather surprising revelation by the manager of the Fregoli. The story is held together by a series of well-structured scenes including a wonderful sequence where Leigh sings a heart-rending version of Cindi Lauper’s 80’s hit, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. There is also a very graphic sex scene that makes Team America: World Police (2004) seem tame. The fact that it does not come across as unintentionally funny only pays tribute to the fine work of the team of puppeteers and the finely crafted script. Normally in stop motion projects the movements are accurate but the facial expressions fail to convince. During Anomalisa it is the facial expressions and the emotions they convey that are the real triumph.
Anomalisa will split audiences. I have no doubt that there will be percentage of viewers who will leave the cinema feeling cold and fairly miserable with the experience. George’s motivations and actions are self-centered and used to break the mundane routine that he believes his life has taken. This involves using or alienating those that love him or are the victim of his affections. In this regard it is difficult to sympathize with the character’s condition.
Other viewers may connect with the feeling of socially disconnecting with one’s peers and how utterly terrifying and lonely that whole experience is. It certainly maintains Kaufman’s ability to create and accumulate the finances necessary to present original and brilliant movies onto the big screen. Long may this truly wonderful writer and director continue to present these obscure twists on modern life and the dark secrets that dwell within the human mind.
Anamolisa will be featured in the closing gala of this years Glasgow Film Festival. Full details of the festival can be found in the link : – https://visitgff.glasgowfilm.org/