Mark Reviews Movies

Anomalisa

ANOMALISA

3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman

Cast: The voices of David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 12/30/15 (limited); 1/8/16 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 8, 2016

The world of Anomalisa is mundane and filled with redundancies. It's not enough, for example, that the phone in a hotel room has a single speed-dial button for room service. Here, there's a button with an image of a food platter, but there are also buttons with images of a waiter holding a platter, a hamburger, a chicken leg, and a few others representing food.

It's not enough that the cab driver tells his passenger, who has just arrived in Cincinnati, that he needs to make time to try the famous local chili and to visit the city's zoo. The cover of a magazine in the hotel room proclaims the virtues of said chili, and a billboard outside the window of the room advertises the zoo with an encouraging slogan: "It's zoo sized!"

It's not just that everyone seems to be saying the exact same thing in the exact same words or some variation of them, either. Everyone has a lot to say but never really says much. They all sound alike when they're saying a lot of nothing much at all, too. It's not only the tone with which they say these things, which always possesses a monotonous politeness, but also the fact that their voices seem to be one, with the women and children at slightly higher pitch than the men.

The majority of directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman's film takes place inside that hotel, either in the room, a hallway, the lobby bar, or, in one particularly odd scene (That's saying something here), the oversized office of the manager. The place is clean to the point of appearing blandly sterile—lots of inoffensive, neutral colors and sickeningly pleasant fluorescent lighting. It's sparse to the point that it lacks any kind of personality—just a regular, old upscale hotel, then.

This is a precisely engineered world, and that description should be taken two ways (and one of those ways has at least two layers) that seem to inform whatever it is that Johnson and Kaufman (The latter of whom also wrote the screenplay, adapting his "sound play") are attempting to communicate here. The first way is that this is a work of exquisitely crafted, uniquely styled stop-motion animation.

The characters' faces are constructed of two distinct parts, separated by an obvious line that runs horizontally just below the eyes. We can see how the animation works and, at times, actually spot it working (A couple of dream sequences ensure we really note exactly how it works). The obviousness constantly calls attention to the illusion of it all, even as some of the more distant shots of these figurines have such a fluidity of motion that one wonders if the model faces were superimposed over real people.

Perhaps the strangest thing of all the film's absurd happenings is that this approach, which allows so much freedom from the physical and logical boundaries of reality, is used to convey a series of events that are so decidedly ordinary. The story follows Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis), an English expatriate who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and young son, as he arrives in Cincinnati to give a lecture on customer service. He's distracted by the memory of a former lover who lives in the city. Upon arriving at the hotel, he calls her and invites her over for a drink. It does not go well.

Back in his room, he hears a voice that stands out from the rest. He tracks the owner of that voice to a room down the hall. Her name is Lisa (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh), and she is in town with a friend to hear his lecture.

Lisa is the only distinct voice in this world, which brings us to the other way in which it is engineered. The film is very much about occupying Michael's headspace, which is either suffering from a psychological delusion or experiencing a quainter existential crisis. Everyone else sounds the same because they do to him ("Everyone else," by the way, is voiced by Tom Noonan). Maybe he is the butt of some cruel cosmic joke. Having sold the world on the notion of being overly accommodating and polite, now Michael is subjected to the end result, in which everyone speaks enthusiastically about the weather, the local cuisine, and a zoo-sized zoo, while being unable or unwilling to talk about anything of significance. When a certain character eventually does say exactly what that character feels must be said, the reaction is anything but polite.

The point is somehow both obvious and elusive, which is to be expected with Kaufman. Whatever specific reason there may be for Michael's plight—of experiencing uniformity in all things—is unimportant here. Johnson and Kaufman are more interested in the results—in all their absurdity and melancholy, as well as the fleeting moments of unexpected escape. The promise of permanent escape from the uniform is Lisa, and there is something transcendent in their time together alone in Michael's room, as he clings to the promise and she worries that he's simply using her for uncouth ends. There's a scene of love-making that is awkward, desperate, sad, and ultimately tender and joyous. Again, these are plastic figurines, yet the moment feels more real than what we often see in movies featuring actual human beings.

It's all an illusion, which means it's an illusion within an illusion that wants to make sure we know it's an illusion on both levels. Whatever Anomalisa is might be just out of reach, but it is something all right.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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