Standing in the queue for the London Film Festival’s mysterious secret screening, all the talk was unsurprisingly concerned with what lay ahead on the mammoth screen at the Odeon in Leicester Square. Packed together like cattle, there were murmurs of The Hateful Eight or, perhaps most widely suspected, The Danish Girl. But of course you can’t second guess the BFI quite that easily and, naturally, we were all completely wrong. In a real surprise turn, Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Duke Johnson’s (Community) stop-motion animation Anomalisa was the BFI’s delicious entrée that night.
Kaufman’s latest project follows famous customer service guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis) on an overnight business trip to Cincinnati. Along with the mundanities of travel, Michael has liaisons with several women from both his past and future. It’s through these interactions that Michael’s hang-ups and growing existential anxieties begin to emerge. It’s a simple plot deftly executed with style and substance.
Anomalisa started out as a humble radio play, and that fact is quickly emphasized in the film’s dialogue-heavy delivery. The script flits between wry satire and impeccable and earnest realism. Kaufman has a wonderful appreciation of the real world and uses that to recreate unnervingly familiar scenarios onscreen.
The film’s humour and authenticity are at their best during a long-winded twenty-minute opening scene where Michael slogs through the motions of travel: arriving at the airport, getting a taxi, checking in at the hotel, dealing with the bellboy and ordering room service. It all sounds painfully trifling yet Kaufman plays the scenes like an observational stand-up routine. Michael, infused with Thewlis’ thick Northern accent, addresses each scenario with resignation and cynicism. His very British nature conflicts with the Americans’ unflappable, yet wholly insincere, courtesy. Ironically, this grin-laden level of customer service is exactly what Michael trades in.
Kaufman’s satirical shiv is razor-sharp, but so is his ability to write natural dialogue. Michael’s conversations with his latest flame, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), meander beautifully with all the unpredictably of life. All the idiosyncrasies of humanity are exposed without even the hint of forced narrative agenda. Lisa’s is especially impressive as she natters on about nothing in particular for long periods without ever losing our attention. This approach could have been extremely dull, but Kaufman makes us feel like we’re privy to something special behind the sealed walls of Michael’s hotel room.
While it takes a while for the script’s brilliance to sink in, the unique qualities of the production are immediately clear. Under animation expert Duke Johnson’s stewardship, the stop motion world of Anomalisa comes to life. Distinct from animations like Team America or Wallace and Gromit, Anomalisa utilises lifelike puppets for its protagonists, Lisa and Michael.
While the two major characters are individually designed, everyone else in the world is based on the same model and project the same voice (Tom Noonan). Man, woman or child—it doesn’t matter. All share the same unsettling androgynous characteristics. This omnipresent figure perfectly encapsulates Michael’s mental collapse and his belief that everyone around him is the same—a condition known as Fregoli delusion, alluded to by the hotel which bears the same name.
Another one of Johnson’s clever design tricks is to use CGI and separate animation for the movement of the puppets’ mouths. This method allows the characters to fully articulate themselves and manoeuvre far beyond the constraints of their rigid faces. An animated mouth in a puppet’s body further adds to this bizarre paradox of live-action reality versus animation.
The sets are equally mismatched. In what world would you painstakingly recreate the most generic of hotel rooms as a model? Oftentimes animation offers a glimpse into wild imagination, yet here Johnson and Kaufman use it to explore mundanity. You’d think that this stylistic approach would be at odds with the subject matter, yet it works and even excels beyond all expectation. Recreating the everyday in puppets and plastic accentuates the absurdity of the life more than reality ever could. Kaufman’s tale of crisis, cast out of the neurotic mould of Woody Allen’s brain, successfully bundles the surreal, emotional and everyday into one ball of bizarre pathos.
The film unfortunately falls flat its climatic execution. Michael experiences something akin to a total breakdown and points toward a rousing finale where his world and mind come crashing down. His behaviour steadily becomes more erratic, and then—nothing. It’s not a total disappointment, but rather an underwhelming way to finish such a promising story. For all the conflict we need some resolution, yet Kaufman holds back judgement. We’re given a glimpse in to Michael’s odd life but then the world turns and he’s gone again. We’re left wanting more, which is roundabout praise for Anomalisa‘s alluring strangeness.
Sitting down to watch Anomalisa, I had no idea it existed, and I was therefore free of the influence of any preconceptions about the film. Such rare and welcome conditions alone might have swayed me into a favourable view of the film, but that’s not the case here. Anomalisa’s writing, acting (well, voice acting) and unique puppetry make it something special no matter how it crosses your path. This sort of bold filmmaking is what cinema is all about, so I implore you to go see Anomalisa. It is, indeed, an anomaly.
Movie Verdict: Win
This review is part of Jonny’s ongoing coverage of the 2015 London Film Festival. For more reviews, click here.