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Friday, January 8, 2016

In Anomalisa, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Posted By on Fri, Jan 8, 2016 at 1:30 PM

click to enlarge David Thewlis voices Michael Stone in the animated stop-motion film, Anomalisa. - © 2015 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
  • © 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
  • David Thewlis voices Michael Stone in the animated stop-motion film, Anomalisa.

Attention Pixar fans: Charlie Kaufman’s new stop-motion animation film Anomalisa is not for you.

There isn’t a single pop of bright color. No clever talking animals. Not a cheerful adapted fable in sight. If you’re looking for a stop motion feature intent on delighting an audience, revisit Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). Or, better yet, unearth Phyllis Diller’s performance as a puppet in the Mad Monster Party? from 1967, which boasts the tagline: "You don’t get invited; you get committed!” Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson intend to establish a mood and an atmosphere rather than dazzle with the visual inventiveness of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) or Coraline (2009).

click to enlarge David Thewlis voices Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa in the animated stop-motion film, Anomalisa. - © 2015 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
  • © 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
  • David Thewlis voices Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa in the animated stop-motion film, Anomalisa.

That the mood is nihilistic and the atmosphere stained the color of stale coffee and cigarette butts shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Kaufman’s oeuvre. We’re inside some very similar terrain that’s been explored before in his screenplays for Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Synecdoche, New York (2008). The male protagonists who populate these films suffer from a relentless ennui. Unable to locate meaning in their quotidian days, their sense of disconnect from other people, especially from women, manifests itself in feelings of frustration and rage. God is dead and cannot provide faith or moral guidance. And any pagans who once enjoyed the corporeal pleasures of merely being have vanished. His characters inhabit the bodies and souls of the unmoored, and there’s no anchor anywhere in sight. 

David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan were cast as the voices of the characters. Tom Noonan, in a questionable device, voices every supporting role in the film, essentially making the piece a three-person drama. Noonan acts with a heady and potent mix of menace: He was born to play the wraith. And he’s in good, soured company with Thewlis and Leigh. They play Michael Stone and Lisa Hesselman, respectively, who meet at a hotel conference and eventually have sex with each other, as animated puppets. This scene, though anatomically correct, substitutes human intimacy for a virtual reality game of avatar sexuality. With visible lines across their brows and jawlines, It’s impossible to forget that there’s always someone on set pulling the characters’ — ahem — strings.



In other words, you need to be in a certain frame of mind to appreciate the craft that went into the making of Anomalisa. Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) will prime you for a trip to Kaufman’s unhappy land of ordinary realism. Years before his Harry Potter paycheck, Thewlis played the miscreant Johnny in Naked, spewing out one corrosive, brilliantly delivered monologue after another. Thewlis’s conception of the author/thought-leader Michael Stone, is just a different take on man’s ongoing, insoluble existential crisis, albeit one who is inhibited and repressed, a middle-aged sack of moldering flour.

This animated iteration of man as an empty puppet is the ne plus ultra of Kaufman’s endgame. Leigh has the chance to sing in character as Lisa, and what she sings is a Cyndi Lauper pop song reduced to a dirge. There’s nothing left to lose in this bruised vision of human emptiness. If everybody is identically manufactured and therefore dead inside, do we really need a joyless film to confirm that fact for us?    

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