Within the beige walls of a mediocre hotel, Michael Stone chats awkwardly to his wife on the phone, orders room service and makes painful small-talk with employees. From the first moments we meet Michael we sense his exhaustion. Attempting to communicate and interact with those around him, for whom he does not care, Michael maintains a consistent and internal frustration. When he instantly connects with another hotel guest, his world is transformed for the night. Captivated by another soul, Michael’s anxieties and strife subsides, temporarily. From the baffling and visionary mind of Charlie Kaufman comes Anomalisa, a problematic and brutal story captured and told effectively through the stop-motion animation of Duke Johnson. The brutality of the narrative and the themes of isolation are elevated by the use of animation in a harrowing and deeply troubling story of mental illness and the darker side of the mid-life crisis. David Thewlis captures the angst of Michael whilst Tom Noonan provides the voices of everyone else – a jarring and intelligent move which highlights Michael’s loneliness and separation. When Janet Jason Leigh’s voice cuts through the recurring noise of Noonan’s characters we too experience Michael’s infatuation with a unique voice amongst the masses. Along with Noonan’s voice, Johnson has simultaneously used the same blank face for all characters apart from Thewlis’ and Leigh’s. Anomalisa defines itself as an adult film very early on with a tirade of profanity pouring from the mouths of multiple characters. Cruel and harrowing in its honesty, Anomalisa is a troubling experience; a dark and sombre film about narcissism, loneliness and mental illness.
Far from perfect, I have my qualms with Anomalisa. The comedy is disjointed and at times entirely unsuccessful. In one scene Michael wanders into a toy shop, the punch line of which is obvious long before he arrives and therefore falls on deaf ears. An enchanting and meditative first forty five minutes take place on one night inside the hotel. The film’s second half unravels in the cold and unwelcoming light of day and struggles to live up to what’s gone before. Knowing Kaufman, it would be unsurprising if this disjointed technique was intentional. Existentially it makes sense but, cinematically, it doesn’t work. The film’s climatic scene is a little insincere and awkward – lacking the emotion which I suspect was intended. Anomalisa is a modern tragedy centring on selfishness, self doubt and dilemma. It’s hard to like anyone, making Anomalisa all the more challenging to enjoy. The film’s strength lies in its cruelty and discomfort; this is a land of flawed people, flawed lives and failed attempts, again and again. Aesthetically stunning, Anomalisa is brought to life through its art form. The sensitive use of puppetry brings the people under the microscope and creates eloquent symbolisms for what is taking place inside and outside of Michael’s mind. Be prepared for the most caring and well crafted sex scene in recently movie history. Other critics were right to point out the irony of Anomalisa being deeply humane but entirely human-less.
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