TIFF 2015: Anomalisa
Michael Stone is an inspiration to the world – his works have helped countless people find success in business and life. But his own life has lost meaning and depth to the point that all faces and voices have blurred into one. Alone in a city from his past, he finds a woman that can help him break free of this pattern, if he’s willing to throw everything else he has away. Anomalisa is a heart-breaking love story from master craftsman Charlie Kaufman, ground-breakingly presented in stop-motion animation.
Michael’s life has become boring. So much so that his entire world has blurred into one androgynous face and voice, with his own seemingly the only anomaly. His wife and son, the ex-lover he tries to reconnect with in a fit of desperation, and all of the service staff surrounding him on his current journey – all the same, devoid of difference. Until, like a spark in the darkness, he hears the voice of Lisa. He is entranced by her immediately, and soon willing to turn away from his entire life for the chance at something new with her. But this is not a completely happy story. While its magical realism allows for some doubt as to the secret behind Michaels circumstances, it soon becomes clear that he is just one of countless men that feel trapped by the lives of their choosing. His story is no different than any middle aged crisis that has come before.
There is an almost limitless number of characters in this film, but only three actors. Michael is played by David Thewis, his exasperated dry humor toward his circumstances providing the driving force behind much of the film’s humor. Lisa is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who brings a gentle sweetness to the role of a simple girl who doesn’t feel worthy of love. And everyone else – absolutely everyone else – is played by Tom Noonan. Tom’s performances are incredible, the sheer range he presents is really something else. Together the three of them help to create a world in which one man and one woman can find themselves, if only for a night.
A brief (and somewhat spoilery) disclaimer – this is not a film that you should watch with your parents. There is a rather graphic sex scene that made one audience member so uncomfortable that she started hooting with nervous laughter. The whole theatre felt in that moment like a high school class watching a movie with boobs in it for the first time. That said, “puppet sex scene” might bring to mind the explicit ridiculousness of the “love scene” in Team America: World Police. However just as with every other aspect of the film, Anomalisa presents this scene genuinely. It is as one of real (if not fleeting) love and attraction, and the awkwardness of a first time encounter is played painfully pitch-perfect. I know that I will have trouble getting people to believe me that a stop-motion sex scene could be beautiful, but trust me that it was somehow.
At this point you might be wondering – why stop-motion at all? Well there is a perfectly reasonable and fascinating answer: The story Anomalisa was originally told as an audio play. The same cast played the same roles only without costumes and make-up – it was a completely aural experience. As it happens, Dino Stamatopoulos (of Moral Orel and Community) happened to have attended the play, and when his and Duke Johnson’s production company Starburns Industries was looking for another project, Anomalisa came to mind. Kaufman saw an opportunity to tell his story free from producer constraints, and the crew came together (with some help from Kickstarter). Duke and Charlie are a fantastic directing pair, as their work leaps off the screen. They also manage to use the physical aspects of the puppets to do some pretty inventive fourth wall-breaking.
The use of stop-motion could seem kitschy, but the attention to detail, and the superb performances from the vocal cast completely take your mind off the fact that you are watching a puppet deal with a mid-life crisis. A puppet trying in such a panic just to get his pants on that he falls over seems absurd – but the pathos for the character by that point is so strong that you can only feel his urgency and hope that he will find a way out of his empty existence. With its themes of alienation, mid-life crises, and the sense of other-worldliness that comes with travel, Anomalisa feels very much like the spiritual twin to Lost In Translation. Fortunately it stands on its own and I think they could make for a very interesting double feature.
I found it somewhat difficult to write about this film at first, because I enjoyed it so much – it’s like trying to explain why chocolate is amazing. I won’t argue that it’s necessarily for everyone, but as a frequent business traveler I was struck by how accurately they captured the airport, taxi and hotel experience. The details in every set and interaction were perfect to the point that it gave me goosebumps. I have no doubts that my next trip will be affected by my experience of having seen this film, it is one that will stay with me for a long time.