My initial reaction to Charlie Kaufman’s new film, Anomalisa, was to call it his most solipsistic work yet. The central character, Michael, is a famous self-help author who has a little problem with the way he relates to other people. While watching the film, I interpreted his problem (I don’t want to spoil this central plot point of the movie, so I’ll try to dance around it) as a way for Kaufman to explore one man’s narcissism. His rather unique inability to connect with those around him seemed like a study in self-absorption. Then I did some homework on the movie.
The screenplay is an adaptation from Kaufman’s own 2005 play, written for a unique artistic endeavor called “Theater of the New Ear.” It was a series created by musician and film composer Carter Burwell, and it was an attempt to bring to life the old live action radio plays of the 1930s and 1940s. The actors were seated at desks on stage, reading their lines while a live orchestra and foley artist created the music and sound effects. When I came across the pseudonym Kaufman used for his play, Francis Fregoli, everything clicked into place. Solipsism and narcissism aren’t what Kaufman is really interested in here, after all. I’ll let you decide if you want to Google Fregoli Syndrome before seeing Anomalisa, but I don’t think knowing the secret would irreparably spoil the movie. Rest assured, he uses the device to explore his trademark preoccupations: existential dread, personal isolation, and general unease with society at large. As is the case with every other work Kaufman has crafted, there are many layers to Anomalisa. It’s a difficult, thought provoking picture, and one that you’ll wrestle with long after you’ve seen it.
Kaufman was initially hesitant to adapt the play for the screen because he worried the unique comedy wouldn’t translate. In a perfect example of his perverse and peculiar brand of humor, Kaufman mined laughs from the live audience of the play by staging a graphic sex scene. Because it was produced like a radio play, the actors never touched. They simply sat at their desks while moaning and groaning in front of the audience. In a brilliant stroke (pardon the pun) of genius, Kaufman turned to animator Duke Johnson to help him direct the film version.
Together the pair decided to use incredibly detailed puppets and the antiquated, but incredibly effective art of stop-motion animation to bring the story to life on the screen. So, instead of the bizarre experience of two actors simulating sex with nothing but their voices, now we have incredibly realistic puppet sex. The last time a movie attempted the same thing was the gloriously over-the-top copulation scene in the satire Team America: World Police. As ridiculously hilarious as that scene is, the sex in Anomalisa is naturalistic while also being discomfiting.
Whether intentional or not, this sex scene also works as a commentary on male entitlement to female bodies. It takes place between Michael and Lisa, a woman who is attending a conference to hear Michael give a speech on his topic of expertise: motivating service industry employees to give exceptional customer service. Lisa confides in Michael about her lack of self-esteem regarding her looks and intelligence, letting him know she is apprehensive about getting physical with him. Instead of hearing her, and heeding her words, Michael 'gently' pushes the issue until she agrees to have sex with him.
Besides the comedy of unease that puppets having sex provides, there are numerous other droll bits sprinkled throughout Anomalisa. The fact that Michael is a world famous – people throughout the film comment, “Look, it’s Michael Stone!” – customer service expert is particularly hilarious. British character actor David Thewlis’s voice work infuses Michael with a deep melancholy broken only by his comic frustration with the rest of the world. Michael is a character who takes the Jean Paul Sartre quote, “Hell is other people,” as a personal motto. Tom Noonan, an actor whose voice alone might be hard to place, is particularly brilliant. His performance calls instantly to mind one of Kaufman’s most uniquely realized moments of film – when the titular character of Being John Malkovich enters his own mind and is confronted with a sea of people who look exactly like him, and speak only the word, “Malkovich.” Trust me, you'll get it when you see Anomalisa.
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa provides a real emotional bedrock to the picture. As are many characters in Kaufman stories, Lisa is alone and lonely, searching for a human connection. There’s a moment in Anomalisa that is simultaneously kitschy, funny, and heartfelt in the way that makes Kaufman’s writing so unique. Lisa tells Michael she loves to sing, and he coaxes her to give an impromptu performance of her favorite song – Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun.
Then there are those puppets. Co-director Duke Johnson and his animation team show complete mastery in an artistic medium close to extinction. Computer generated effects are de rigueur for the film industry, and they only get better looking with each passing year. There is an undeniable charm, though, in the old school stop-motion animation technique. The beauty created by capturing on film the hundreds of thousands of tiny adjustments to the small puppets is something to be admired and celebrated. These objects live and breathe on screen in a way digital effects don’t.
The method is used to spectacular effect during the several nightmarish dream sequences throughout the film where Michael is confronted by his seemingly deteriorating mental state. These scenes, and the film as a whole, recall the mesmerizing stop-motion work of the Brothers Quay, who should feel safe knowing a new generation of filmmakers are carrying the unique art form into the future. Anomalisa is a perfect marriage of form and content that work together to create a mind-bending, perplexing, haunting vision that captivates the mind while troubling the soul.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Anomalisa is a movie that I'll be wrestling with for quite a while. This was one of the harder reviews I've written, and it's because the film is a very complex and layered piece of work. Emotionally, though, it left me a bit cold, and that's why I didn't rate it higher.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- These aren't your grandfather's puppets. The filmmakers created them using 3-D printing technology. They printed 1,261 different faces to get an astonishing diversity of expression.
- Dino Stamatopoulos: That was a name I didn't know at all, but because of a serendipitous string of events, he turned up everywhere for me last week, and I'm now fascinated with him. I knew his face as the actor who played Star-burns in one of my favorite sitcoms- Community. Last weekend, I watched the hour-long behind the scenes special capping off Netflix's revival of one of my favorite sketch comedy shows, Mr. Show with Bob and David. I learned Stamatopoulos is a highly valued writer and consultant for show creators Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. When I noticed one of the production companies listed in Anomalisa's opening credits was Starburns Industries, I took note. Turns out Stamatopoulos is part owner and partner of the production company, which specializes in "stop-motion, traditional 2D, and CG animation," according to their website. He's a very interesting dude, to say the least.