ANOMALISA review by Gary Murray – Charlie Kaufman’s attemps a stop-motion experiment

ANOMALISA review by Gary Murray – Charlie Kaufman’s attemps a stop-motion experiment


2015 was a stellar year for animated films. It seemed like every month, a different hand or computer crafted work took over the big screen. They amazed both kids and the adults who were kids at heart. But since Heavy Metal in the 1980s, there has been a push to make more adult animations that would go past the midnight movie crowds (stuff like Fritz the Cat, or even classics like Wizards). Another entry in that thought process is Anomalisa, one of the strangest films of this young year.

The story is told with stop-motion animation, or in this case puppet animation – those who remember them, think along the lines of the Gumby and Pokey films. It is a painstakingly slow process of moving a 3D miniature just a fraction, taking a single picture frame, then moving it again. This gives the effect of movement with non-movable objects. The 1933 King Kong is a stellar example of how this process can be pulled off to an amazing effect. In Anomalisa, the story is of a corporate superstar lecturer Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), who is going to Cincinnati to give a talk based on his book that is used by call center personnel. From a single phone call, we are given the information that his marriage has hit a rough patch. He is an L.A. guy and does not want to be in fly-over country. There is an unspoken distain for anything that is not from either coast.

On the cab ride over, he asks the cab driver if there is a toy shop near the hotel so he can get his young son a gift. The cab driver misunderstands his request and assumes that Michael is looking for a sex toy shop, and sends him to a store near the hotel. Once at the hotel, Michael checks into the room. The man behind the counter both looks and sounds exactly like the cab driver. So does the bellboy. The more the film unfolds, the more that everyone looks exactly like the cab driver. That is both men and women. The suggestion is that either something is going awry or that Michael is going crazy.

Eventually Michael meets two women who are to attend his speech the next morning. Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a bit of a scatterbrain but is the only person who does not look or sound like everyone else. Michael is drawn to this mousy girl who keeps the right side of her face hidden by her hair. Eventually, Michael asks Lisa back to his room for a nightcap. (SMALL SPOILER HERE) Alone at last, Michael pushes the shy woman to become more intimate, even leading to them both getting naked. Yes, there is stop-motion full frontal nudity and sex… and then the film gets really weird. (END SPOILER)

Surprisingly, for me at least, this is the worst film in this young year and will probably make my worst film list. There are so few redeeming bits and at 90 minutes, it is about 89 minutes too long. At times it is perverse and most of the time it is just boring. Team America had a more realistic sex scene. There are hundreds of talented people who brought this work to life and it feels as if they have wasted years of their professional careers. The way they animate the mouths by changing the faces with each spoken syllable is innovative but a similar effect is done on Robot Chicken and done much better.

While a few shots are artistic, most is just a muddy brown. Directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman have to collectively take the bulk of the blame for wasting 1 and 1/2 hours of the audience‚Äôs life with this navel-gazing tripe. But the biggest blame has to be hoisted on the shoulders of Charlie Kaufman. Not only did he co-direct this but he also wrote it. It is his baby from the very first draft. The only true positive is Jennifer Jason Leigh. She breathes live into her character in a way her male co-stars fail. One believes her Lisa is a real person and is not being played for a single instance of plot twist. Some big city critics are going to fawn all over every frame of this work calling it ground breaking and innovative. It is way too self-reflexive and not as clever as it thinks it is, at least in this reviewer’s opinion. See Anomalisa only if you must, or it becomes a dare.

ANOMALISA is now playing in select theaters

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