Thursday, November 12, 2015

Anomalisa (AFI Fest 2015)

A labor of love years in the making, Anomalisa is startlingly human for a movie comprised only of stop-motion puppets. It's a film about love, hope, fear, connection, and loneliness, and it marks a return to the cinematic territory of Charlie Kaufman, the man behind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Synecdoche, New York, complete with the surreality and palpable emotion that filmography promises. This is one of the most remarkable movies of the year.

Directors: Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

David Thewlis provides the voice of Michael Stone, a bland, middle-aged author who flies in to Cincinnati to deliver a speech at a customer service conference the next day. Everyone he sees — his wife and son back home, the guy sitting next to him on the plane, the hotel desk clerk — has the same face, and they're all voiced by Tom Noonan. Everyone, that is, except for Lisa, an unassuming woman staying at the same hotel who's in town with her best friend to catch Michael's speech the next day. Lisa is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and her feminine voice and unique face slices through the dull Noonan-speech and sameness that dominates Michael's life, intoxicating him and drawing him to this newfound anomaly in his world. (Get it? Anomalisa?) 

Though we're obviously immediately confronted with the fact that we're watching stop-motion puppets as the film begins, the astoundingly accurate production design helps establish the reality of the world, and within a couple of minutes, I completely bought into what Kaufman (who wrote the screenplay) and his co-director Duke Johnson were doing. It also helps that Michael and Lisa are wonderfully expressive, compelling, fully emotional characters whose desires and insecurities are instantly recognizable in our own lives.

The film's premise never allows the viewer to forget that we're watching puppets on display, but the movie still goes out of its way to get all of the little details exactly right. There's award-worthy production and sound design here, with the tiniest aspects of every location rendered with spot-on accuracy and careful precision. Dust motes float in front of a spotlight, ice clinks in a glass, and the sweaty noises of sex — oh yes, there's a puppet sex scene, full frontal nudity and all — are translated with breathtaking skill. Concentrating on all of these mundane elements pulls us in even further, and the directors find tons of comedy in everything from Michael dealing with chatty cab drivers to burning himself in the shower. (They're the kinds of things that don't sound funny on paper, but in context, they're laugh out loud moments. I laughed more in this than most straight-ahead comedies I've seen this year.)

I think I'm going to need a few days to fully appreciate everything it has to say about the human condition, but Anomalisa is easily one of the year's best films, a staggering work of emotional cinema that's hilarious, touching, heartbreaking, and joyous all at once. Charlie Kaufman has done it again.

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