Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop motion animation experiment is one that flew mostly under the mainstream radar when it first popped its head beyond the festival circuit earlier this year, while still attracting enough attention that it was on my “To watch” pile. If there’s one thing that I have been concerned about when it comes to animation recently, it’s the staleness that is creeping in everywhere, at least in the better known productions, a feeling that fewer and fewer people are willing to be as inventive as possible. Anomalisa, in its story of frustrated sales expert Michael (David Thewlis), his Fregoli delusion life and his sudden relationship with the insecure Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), adapted from a stage play, isn’t something to be called inventive in its narrative, but I don’t think anything quite like it has been attempted in stop-motion before, not this explicitly.
And I’m not convinced that the attempt was really worth it. On the one hand, Anomalisa is a fascinating picture. The directors have spoken of “the challenge” that Anomalisa represents, whether it is possible to put this kind of downbeat human condition-esque drama into this kind of format, and not have it be a visual disaster that audiences can’t take seriously. In that regard, Anomalisa is actually a storming success: I was taking every bit of this seriously, from the moment we realise what a sad sack loser the author of How Can I help You Help Them? really is.
And on the other hand, it’s the actual narrative being presented that’s the problem. It isn’t exactly that Anomalisa is a downbeat, utterly crushing tale of a man’s mid-life crisis and his floundering attempts to rectify that within a 24 hour period. I can deal with depressing stories. For me, I think, the problem is that Michael is depicted in such negative terms, almost right from the off, that it was hard to really care about him or his plight. An asshole is an asshole: and Michael is an asshole, one who waits approximately five minutes after a phone call with his wife and son to try and set up an encounter with an old flame, and then proceeds to have an alcohol fuelled experience with a girl he’s randomly bumped into that, as you might expect, doesn’t lead to fulfilling places. The whine of a man who just can’t find anyone in his life that he can properly talk to is one that doesn’t resonate with me all that well.
The film’s obsession with the Fregoli delusion – a psychological condition where one perceives everyone around them as having the same face and voice – is used both seriously, to define Michael’s plummeting ability to connect with anyone around him on any level, and in a joking manner, and just like with Silver Linings Playbook, it’s quite hard for me to get on-board with either approach, ad they both take away from the other. It doesn’t help also that Kaufman, the scriptwriters behind Being John Malkovich, has already done stuff similar to this before. Indeed, so many of his main characters, from Adaptation to Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, tend to be the kind of character that Michael is. A little variation wouldn’t be a bad thing.
The main themes too, reek of a kind of adolescent unhappiness that comes off as comically cynical more than revelatory: individuality is being lost in a modern consumer society obsessed with ease of service seems to be the main gist of it, but this diatribe is delivered in so blunt a manner, with Michael’s own son, sounding like everyone else, interacting with him only to ask if he’s bought him something on his trip. You kind of want to tell Kaufman to ease off just a little by the time we get to Michael’s big speech at his conference, which appears to be aiming for a Network-esque telling off of the world, but ends up sounding more like Hugh Laurie in Tomorrowland.
Which is a shame, because when Anomalisa is willing to actually give it a go, the humour works. The very first line, where Michael awkwardly accepts a random stranger on the plane holding his hand for landing (“It’s fine…you can let go now though”) actually holds true to the possibility of Anomalisa being the kind of dark comedy it was partially marketed as. But from there, in an intro that aims to be realistic, painfully so, we just follow Michael from one awkward encounter to another – a cab driver, a bellhop, room service, his wife, his son, a woman he abandoned years ago – that is devoid of humour or warmth. That’s largely the point, but the experience is just cringe-inducing and dull, and the film doesn’t pick up any kind of steam until past the half-way point, when Jason Leigh’s Lisa comes into play.
Michael’s awkward seduction of her is one I found remarkably creepy, and not all the kind of life changing experience others might perceive it to be. With Tom Noonan providing the voices of every other cast member – an interesting experiment in itself, but one that I found frustratingly distracting by the third act, even if it is the point – this is the only time that two members of the cast are actually speaking to each other, and like everything else it’s an elongated conversation filled with awkwardness and pithy attempts to analyse life as we know it. Anomalisa generally is Michael’s long dark night of the soul, and the encounter with Lisa is supposed to be some kind of respite from that: but at the end of the day, it’s a married middle-aged man drunkenly trying to have an affair with a random woman he met at a hotel, and convincing himself because of his problems with people generally that it is more than it really is.
Visually, it’s fair to say that Anomalisa gets everything right. The faces of the stop-motion puppets are lifelike and expressive, enough that Kaufman and Johnson are getting across everything that they want Thewlis and Jason Leigh to get across. They are both long-time veterans of screen and stage, and this kind of project, that they were a part of in its previous incarnation, is something they are well-suited to.
The inevitable sex scene, the one that probably drew Anomalisa most of what little mainstream attention it got, is handled well enough, and the film generally avoids any negative comparisons to the likes of Team America: World Police, who used somewhat similar techniques but played them entirely for laughs. The directors aren’t especially interested in crafting a world full of details – the vast majority of the film takes place in a fairly bare looking hotel room – focusing instead almost entirely on the few principals. Considering the challenge that they set for themselves, that was probably a good idea, and I can’t say that Anomalisa‘s drama chops were negatively affected by the visual genre it placed itself in.
Certainly, if Anomalisa had been a live-action project – as it easily could have been, and I actually wonder what the cheaper option would have been, considering the usual expense of the kinds of models employed here – I think it would have struggled to get any kind of attention, being the kind of mid-life crisis movie that most will have seen before, and that we have seen Kaufman write and direct before, without the kind of engaging hook in the personality of its central character necessary to make the viewer care to the fullest about his life and closing position. But being stop-motion means that it is worthy of further consideration.
If viewed, in a way, as a demo reel for the kind of expressive, emotionally charged stories that stop-motion is capable of delivering, then it succeeds, and the challenge is met. But, for me, the actual narrative and the characterisation lets the film down: it can’t move beyond those detracting elements, regardless of its triumphs elsewhere. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures).