ANOMALISA, animated feature, rated R, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
In 2008, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, a much more restrained film than his previous efforts, took fans by surprise. Anomalisa (co-directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman) might do the same for admirers of Kaufman’s films. The adult-themed animated feature does away with the mind-bending plot twists and turns of his earlier works, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and tells a moving, tragic, and subdued story that is the most straightforward film Kaufman has done. Or is it? An odd thing about Anomalisa is that from the start, you know you’re watching stop-motion animated puppets and not real people — but the characters feel authentic, and some very tender and honest depictions of people trapped in lives devoid of meaning and passion are depicted here. One senses a quiet desperation under all the characters say and do.
The film takes place over the course of a single night in a Midwestern hotel. Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewliss) is the author of a popular book on customer service. He is in town for a conference, where he plans on delivering a talk on his book. Staying on the same hotel floor is Lisa Hesselman (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, unassuming young woman who has come to attend Stone’s talk. We get glimpses into Stone’s unsatisfying home life during his phone calls home to his wife. His world is dull and monotonous. Everyone he meets, male or female, speaks with the same male voice (that of actor Tom Noonan), until he meets Lisa. They fumble through an awkward and brief but intimate affair, and one senses that this is the first time either character has taken such a risk. For a moment, the characters find bliss, but this is not a love story. Their short time together is, for the characters, out of the ordinary. It’s an anomaly, and the film’s title itself is a combination of “anomaly” and “Lisa.” A nightmare scenario overwhelms Stone as his subconscious presents him with dreams of losing Lisa, who he’s just met. The characters seem to instinctually know that this relationship can’t last and, in a masterstroke, Kaufman has them planning their future together while simultaneously getting on each other’s nerves; the honeymoon, it seems, is already over.
The novelty of the incredible stop-motion puppetry wears off quickly as the story takes over. Its emotional impact is Anomalisa’s greatest reward, and many people may see themselves reflected in the Everyman represented by Stone. What he encounters in the hotel room is the antithesis of his mundane home life, a point driven home in the film’s devastating final moments. That one of the most emotionally rich dramas of the season is an animated feature is also something of an anomaly. The multilayered meanings that mark much of Kaufman’s work are not in the plot, this time, but in the details. — Michael Abatemarco