When we first meet Michael Stone, he’s on a commercial airplane and filled with regret. He reads a letter from a former lover and we see that Michael is someone who’s both respected and prone to making emotionally destructive decisions. This continues once he checks into a hotel and decides to reconnect with the letter’s author. Later, when Michael believes he has finally met a true soul mate, we can’t help but wonder, as he likely does, whether he will destroy that, too. Making all of this quite surreal but strangely engaging is that Anomalisa, directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, uses stop-motion animation.
The decision to make Anomalisa in this manner is an inspired one, as the technique presents the story in a unique light and the animation is top-notch. The facial expression and life-like qualities of the characters illustrate the animators’ strength and precision.
Too bad the animation is also stronger than the material. Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York both had strong, endlessly imaginative narratives that couldn’t be contained by formula and exploded outside the confines of typical screenplay composition. They also offered great narratives that kept evolving. But Anomalisa spins a tale that’s thoughtful but slight and wallows in pity and existential misery.
Since much of the film takes place in a single hotel room, this feels more akin to a chamber piece, short play or first act than a full-length feature film. While the animation is striking and sometimes beautiful, this isn’t a film that must be seen on the big screen. Unlike the recent Tim Burton films that utilized this method of animation, the vision on hand here is quirky and rich but not terribly cinematic.
David Thewlis’ voicing of Stone is inspired and, as his love interest, Jennifer Jason Leigh gives her role the spark and feeling it needs. Thewlis and Leigh give very expressive work, perfectly evoking the delightful and awkward qualities of their characters. The decision to have Tom Noon provide the voice of literally “Everyone Else” in the movie–to emphasize their bland sameness–is clever but undermines the purpose of the supporting figures.
Had this been made as a live action film, I suspect it would have been deemed a lesser Kaufman work. But as portrayed in this unique technique, we marvel at how elegantly and precise the artists have mimicked human behavior, from the profound to the banal.
This one-of-a-kind oddity has amusingly been released by Paramount Pictures, which also distributed the visually similar Team America: World Police. While that raunchy, hysterical spoof was made with marionettes, it also brought life to inanimate objects. I wonder if the studio heads have a soft spot for talking action figures… and sincere puppet sex scenes (yep, you read that right: Anomalisa has stop-motion animated shagging).
The inventiveness of the animation and its ability to create a facsimile of the human experience is the strongest quality here. Kaufman once again makes us look inward and consider what makes us who we are. While this is often funny and arresting to witness, the result is rich as an experiment but limited as a movie.