AFI FEST 2015: Anomalisa, by Scott Nye
Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa began its life as a minimalist 2005 stage production starring David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan. Not the sort of thing one might first think to adapt into a stop-motion animated film, but hey, it’s a big world out there. The effect pays off handsomely, as the medium allows for the possibility, which the narrative teases at here and there, for the whole thing to escalate into the pure id of Kaufman, only to come crashing back down to the mundanity of simple existence. Well, a simple existence in which everyone has Tom Noonan’s voice.
Michael Stone (Thewlis), an author and speaker on the subject of customer service, is on a business trip to Cincinnati. Like a lot of people, he’s restless, dissatisfied with his modest accomplishments, and mournful for the opportunities and people that have passed him by over the years. What’s more, the world now seems bland and indistinct to him. Everyone – man or woman – speaks in the same voice and has the same face. The guy next to him on the plane, the cab driver, the clerk at the hotel, Michael’s wife, their son; just a sea of Tom Noonan everywhere he turns. He tries to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend (still Noonan), but it ends disastrously.
Finally, a voice emerges from the grayness. A voice of beauty and originality belonging to a rather plain girl named Lisa (Leigh). There’s nothing outwardly exceptional about her, but Michael sees an entire world, an entire other life of possibility within her. Here, finally, is the person will save him, will redeem this awful existence filled with unending nothingness.
On a technical level, Anomalisa is superb. Its puppets are never exactly realistic, but they seem endowed with a degree of life I don’t recall having ever seen in the form. They seem to breathe. When they’re still, they’re not really still, their bodies and faces making any number of subtle twitches and adjustments and micro-reactions to the world around them. This lends them not only an air of credibility, but also contributes to the sense of restlessness Michael seems stuck with. He’s not a robot acting on the whims of a puppeteer, but a man who could suddenly lash out or even break free of his form given the right provocation.
Kaufman’s script is perhaps a bit tossed-off, lacking the intricateness and total realization of his more famous screen works (Synecdoche, New York in particular). The film has retained its 2005 setting, which leads to a few now-less-urgent outbursts at the Bush presidency. Its emotional conclusion is not terribly more developed from where it started. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this simplicity. Though Kaufman is something of a genius at finding outlandish constructions to represent his characters’ emotional states, his best trait has always been a brutal honesty – not mere pessimism, but an effort to explore the way this negativity infects our capacity to truly connect to our own lives, never mind to anyone else’s. Anomalisa is a fascinating extension of this.
AFI FEST 2015 Presented by Audi continues through November 12th. Anomalisa will screen tonight at 8:00pm, and again tomorrow at 12:45pm. It will be released theatrically in December by Paramount Pictures.