Anomalisa (2016) – Movie Review

This review of ‘Anomalisa‘ contain spoilers. If you want a spoiler-free conclusion, skip straight to the last paragraph. If you’ve already seen the film and want an analysis on its characters and themes, then proceed. You have been warned.

Directed by: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Tom Noonan
Music: Carter Burwell
Certificate: 15
Release Date: March 11th 2016

Real-talk here. The hardest part of writing these reviews is coming up with interesting introductions. These opening two paragraphs can be difficult to conceive when you’re dealing with an original movie with an unknown or uninteresting background or development history. But with ‘Anomalisa‘, I could write a short novella on the background here. But to cut a long story short, screenwriter extraordinaire Charlie Kaufman wrote the “Anomalisa” stage-play in 2005 and collaborated with composer Carter Burwell to create a “sound play” which is akin to a live radio performance, and cast David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan.

In July 2012, Kaufman and animation director Duke Johnson (“Moral Oral” and “Frankenhole”) set-up a kickstarter campaign to make a 40-minute stop-motion animated adaptation of the sound-play and raised $406, 237 from 5,770 backers. The movie gained additional investment from Starburn Industries and the film became feature-length and took two years to film, with 2-seconds on-average being animated a day. In 2015, it saw a U.S. release and from its humble origins as an independently funded, adult-oriented, stop-motion art-house film it was a front-runner for the “Best Animated Feature” category at the Oscars…if you didn’t count ‘Inside Out‘, which ultimately took home the top prize.

Now, ‘Anomalisa‘ has come out in the U.K. Is it worth the hype and is their a sufficient market for this type of animation style and tone?
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Michael Stone (Thewlis) is a middle-aged man undergoing an extreme mid-life crisis. He’s unable to differentiate between people, voices and finds it difficult to connect or talk to anyone (Noonan). Ironically, he’s just released a very successful book on customer service and he’s staying in a hotel in Cincinnati to give a promotional talk on it. When he’s there, he meets Lisa (Jason Leigh) who he’s immediately drawn to and is willing to leave everything in his current life behind to be with her. Can Michael finally find happiness with this anomaly in this drab world, or will Michael’s own attitudes prevent this?

Anomalisa‘ is the type of movie where a spoiler-free analysis is very difficult to do, so this review will be a dissection of its themes, story and characters with critical notes. Basically, this review is for people who have either already watched the movie and want to discuss what it’s about, or for those who couldn’t care less about spoilers. I could just give a surface-level analysis of ‘Anomalisa‘, but I feel that would be doing a disservice to the movie as it’s impact on me only became apparent after I gave it a closer look. Hence this approach.
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Anomalisa‘ is one of the most successful attempts in recent memory in allowing the audience to get inside the head-space of its main character. We first meet Michael Stone on a plane landing in Cincinnati and we follow his journey to his hotel. Everyone he meets has the exact same face and the exact same voice, all of whom are Tom Noonan. And yes, even the women and children have the same voice and faces. Noonan’s voice is just the perfect balance between mundane and pleasant, whilst also being very cynical and insincere. Michael is bombarded with flaccid attempts to be nice at his hotel, awkward airplane passengers, taxi drivers who are forcefully trying to be social, even the music he listens to through his headphones has Noonan providing the vocals all with the same, grating monotone. The audience feel this frustration with the main character as directors Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson let the audience see the world as Michael Stone sees it.

This is all to do with a clever subversion later on in the movie but more on that later.

The limited cast and faces aren’t just a budget-conscious element (though, that could have factored into its inclusion), but its impact really becomes apparent when Michael gets on the phone to try and connect with a former-lover. When she answers the phone, it’s Tom Noonan’s voice, the same voice we’ve been hearing for the past 15 minutes and Michael has no idea who he’s talking to. Over the course of ‘Anomalisa‘, we follow a man in a failing marriage, who has made terrible social mistakes in his life and is unable to connect or talk with anyone.

Until he meets Lisa.
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Out of nowhere, Michael hears a new voice. The voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Michael, determined to hold onto these new emotions, is willing to risk everything to try and be with her again. We see him talk to Lisa, show a genuine interest in her and he adores listening to her and learning more about her. The two also engage in a sexual relationship in Michael’s hotel room and this isn’t silly puppet-sex like ‘Team America: World Police‘. This is an intimate, tasteful sequence that also captures the awkwardness that can come from a situation like that, such as Lisa hitting her head or Michael struggling to take his trousers off. That night, the two have a legitimate connection and then the next morning…’Anomalisa‘ plays its trump card.

If you take a step back and examine the romance without any context, you’ll notice that Michael’s wooing of Lisa feels very predatory. Lisa clearly has had bad romantic experiences, she’s physically and internally scarred, has very little perceived self-worth and she is completely smitten with Michael because she’s there to attend his promotional talk and loves his book. And Michael knows this. He knows full well that Lisa is infatuated with him and, if you were to watch their interactions without context, you’d think that he was taking advantage of her. He insists that she talk a lot but that’s mainly because he loves the sound of her unique voice and not necessarily because of the stuff she’s saying.
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And then, the next morning as Michael and Lisa eat at the breakfast table, Michael starts to act like an emotional abuser. He chastises Lisa for eating with her mouth open and for the noise she makes when she puts her fork in her mouth and against her teeth. And then…Lisa starts to lose her voice. Jason Jason Leigh slowly starts to be replaced by Tom Noonan and it’s entirely Michael’s doing. Lisa, so eager to make her idol happy, changes her habits and the idiosyncrasies that make her…her. Michael doesn’t even realise he’s doing it, but with this subversion of the story it begs the question; is Michael’s state-of-mind entirely his own doing?

I’m not saying that Michael has deliberately set-out to alienate himself, but with this reveal everything about him starts to add up. Michael’s unwillingness to talk to the taxi driver, not expressing much of an interest in his son by buying him a present at a “toy” store that fascinates only him, wanting to reconnect with a former lover whose life he clearly left in ruins and wanting to try and get intimate with her, dreaming about how much everyone loves him and wants to get in his way and stop him from finding happiness even though what we’ve seen in real-life doesn’t add up to that.
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But because ‘Anomalisa‘ did such an astounding job of getting us in Michael’s head in the first act, we entirely sympathise with this man who is trapped inside his own ego. We understand his disconnect from the world, we sympathise with his path to self-destruction even though he’s not a particularly nice guy. It’s a scenario where the movie doesn’t assume we emphasise with Michael. We’ve seen the world as Michael sees it and we FEEL that empathy, even though it’s in service of an intentionally unlikeable character.

You don’t have to like Michael. But ‘Anomalisa‘ makes you understand him by making you walk a mile in his shoes. So when we see him have a complete mental breakdown as he gives his speech near the end, we have our own mental tug-of-war as a viewer; we know that Michael has it coming but does ANYONE deserve to go through this?
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And the movie ends, rather abruptly to be perfectly honest, with Lisa on the way home from the talk with her friend Emily looking like her normal self as we see the world as Lisa does. Someone who has been humbled by her experiences and may feel trapped by external forces but she’s not a victim of herself like Michael; a man whose life has been tainted by his personal irritations and his obsessive boredom with the world around him. And the last time the audience see Michael, he’s trapped in a house where he no longer recognises his friends, his marriage in tatters and a faux interest in a son who he holds with the same Tom Noonan-style prejudice as everyone else.

You can tell that Duke Johnson, the co-director of ‘Anomalisa‘, is one of the creators of “Moral Oral”, another adult stop-motion animated project that deals in phenomenally dark and depressing themes.
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The voice acting is superb across the board with David Thewlis perfectly managing to make us sympathise with the pompous, pathetic Michael. Jennifer Jason Leigh brings so much warmth to Lisa which is further accentuated by the fact that we first hear her voice 20-25 minutes into the movie and Tom Noonan has surprising range as a literal every-man. This is the same voice cast that were involved in the “sound play” 11 years ago, so they clearly work very well with each other. Co-creator of the sound play, Carter Burwell, returns to do the score and it’s understated and haunting, beautiful and perfectly placed. But yeah, the voice-acting does a great job at complimenting the story’s themes and the characterisation.

The same goes for the animation style. Despite the small scope of the story and how all the characters are realistically animated and fully grounded in reality, ‘Anomalisa‘ is a movie that actively benefits from being stop-motion. The animation style emphasis every single movement and frame, which becomes particularly important during the sequences with Michael and Lisa as you can identify every single mouth-movement as Lisa talks, which emphasises the power her words and dialect have on Michael. The character designs are refreshingly realistic with frumpy (for lack of a better word) appearances which make the characters feel more identifiable.
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The aesthetic of masks on the faces of almost every character, while clearly done as a way to easily swap out faces frame-by-frame for the stop-motion, does make for a mesmerising looking film. The sets are small, but brimming with detail, the lighting is absolutely astounding, the camera-movements feel grounded and with the exception of one-dream sequence it never goes over-the-top or outlandish.

When it comes to issues with ‘Anomalisa‘, it feels like there are some minor structural hiccups. For example, a brief sub-plot involving Michael going to an adult toy-store feels forced and at odds with the tone of everything else around it. It feels like its trying too hard to be an “adult” movie but the themes and animation style hit that point home perfectly enough. Also, the dream sequence, while thematically important, feels like it’s mainly there to give breathing room between the sex scene and the breakfast scene. It goes on for a bit too long, though the gag about the small cart in the huge office was hysterical.
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Anomalisa‘ is one of the most complex, emotionally engaging and compassionate character pieces I’ve seen in a long time. Its stop-motion animation style perfectly compliments the themes of Charlie Kaufman’s multi-layered screenplay whilst also being a visually arresting watch and the voice-cast are absolutely on-point with every line. It’s the type of movie that keeps on giving the more you think about it and even some slight structural issues couldn’t prevent it from resonating with me long after I left the theatre. It’s a profound tale of entitlement and self-inflicted egotism, while at the same time displaying deep, heart-warming empathy for its two lead characters. Because it’s easy to take shots and judge others, especially in a world where context and information means nothing to many individuals. But ‘Anomalisa‘ makes you walk a mile in the shoes of Michael Stone, literally frame by frame, into metaphorical self-destruction.

I give ‘Anomalisa‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.

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Author: Trilbee

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Posted: 18th Mar 16