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Review: Anomalisa (2015)

Anomalisa (2015)

Directed by: Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman 

Premise: A stop-motion animated film. A depressed middle aged man (voice of David Thewlis) spends a night in a hotel and has an awakening when he meets a younger woman (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh).

What Works: Anomalisa impresses the most as a stop motion feature. Stop motion is distinguished from other animation forms by its uncanny quality. Films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Fantastic Mr. Fox told fairy tales and benefitted from the unique look that stop-motion animation creates. Anomalisa is the story of Michael, an average guy with an average job who is overwhelmed by the mundanity of life until he meets Lisa and his perspective on life is transformed. The animation of Anomalisa is terrific, with some images almost indistinguishable from live action, and the whole movie has a dream-like quality. The stop motion look of Anomalisa works for this story as it gives the film a visual style that is a simulacrum of reality but also has an uncanny feel. That suits this story and it allows the filmmakers to do some very interesting things that would not come off as well in live action or traditional animation. As part of Michael’s fragile mental state, every character except for Lisa speaks with the same voice (Tom Noonan). This is jarring at first but the point is clear: everyone in Michael’s life is interchangeable and he has no sense of other people’s individuality. That changes when he meets Lisa, the only other character with a distinct voice, and despite being married he has a fling with her during his stay in the hotel. As a movie about the banality of life, Anomalisa succeeds in ways that are as impressive as Fight Club and American Beauty and in a few respects Anomalisa surpasses those titles. The movie is also remarkable in its humanity. The stop motion form can be charming but it can also produce characters who are alien. Michael and Lisa are portrayed with an astounding level of empathy and the combination of the vocal performances and the animation create characters as real as those of live action moviemaking.

What Doesn’t: Anomalisa is inherently going to have a limited appeal. This is the kind of picture that will be on the radar of those who like art films and experimental shorts but it’s quite different from what mainstream audiences are accustomed to. That’s not a bad quality; the movie just doesn’t conform to what the average moviegoer expects. Anomalisa is challenging in part because of its style but also because of its story and themes. In that respect the movie does come up short. It’s not entirely clear what the filmmakers are trying to say and not because of an appropriate ambiguity like the end of Blade Runner. The story of Anomalisa feels incomplete. The movie is only ninety minutes long and it concludes prematurely. The film takes its character’s sanity to the breaking point and his fractured state of mind may reflect the reality of the world or just his disappointment with his life or he may be experiencing a mental breakdown. Whatever the matter, the filmmakers don’t follow through in the conclusion. Anomalisa is centered on a middle aged man in the throes of a midlife crisis and his solution to that crisis is to cheat on his wife. There is a fair criticism of Anomalisa that this movie really presents white male privilege under the guise of suburban malaise. Everything seems to be fine with Michael’s life but he’s just not happy and that can be read less sympathetically as Eat Pray Love– style narcissism. On the other hand, it’s also fair to rebut that criticism by pointing out that this is the story of a man suffering from mental illness and Anomalisa exists to put the viewer in that headspace, which it does quite well.

DVD extras: Featurettes.

Bottom Line: Anomalisa is a unique cinematic experience. The movie is an ambitious attempt to explore what contemporary society does to the human mind and it has some impressive stop motion animation. The movie is short of greatness but there is a lot in it that is great nonetheless.

Episode: #600 (June 26, 2016)