A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, December 23, 2016

Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015)

Of all forms of animation, stop-motion has for me the greatest creep factor, which Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay, and Duke Johnson, who supervised the animation, deliberately play on in Anomalisa. Traditional cel animation works with the charm of seeing hand-drawn pictures come to life, and computer animation has overcome the gee-whiz element of technological innovation to bring about a simulacrum of real life. But to my mind, only Nick Park and the geniuses at Aardman have managed to overcome the flickery stiffness of stop-motion, and that mainly by telling genuinely funny stories. Anomalisa succeeds too, but it isn't funny -- except in parts. It begins with Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), an expert in the manipulative field of "customer service," arriving in Cincinnati to deliver an address to a convention. Soon we begin to notice something odd: All of the people he meets, male and female, sound the same. They all speak with the voice of Tom Noonan, with only a few variations of accent and pitch to distinguish them from one another. So it's a shock when we -- and Stone -- hear a female voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh's) outside his hotel room. Stone immediately pursues the voice and finds its owner, Lisa Hesselman, who is bowled over to be meeting the Michael Stone, famous in customer-service circles for his book on the topic. Stone invites Lisa and her roommate for a drink, then rather rudely throws over the roommate and asks Lisa back to his room. Kaufman's creation of shy, awkward Lisa, who is deeply self-conscious because of a facial scar that she hides with her hair and who talks constantly and nervously, is a masterstroke. (Anomalisa was originally a play in which Thewlis and Leigh sat on opposite sides of the stage with Noonan in the middle.) Stone calls Lisa an anomaly, a word that he morphs into "anomalisa," and after persuading her to sing Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," they have sex. (The film is rated R and there is full-frontal male puppet nudity.) But the next morning, after a beautifully staged nightmare sequence that plays on Stone's guilt and paranoia, he finds his infatuation with Lisa beginning to fade: When she speaks, he begins to hear Noonan's voice echoing everything she says. He has a breakdown during his speech, and returns home to his family, now uncertain about his sanity. It's a devastating tale, based in part on a neuropsychological phenomenon known as the Fregoli delusion -- the hotel Stone stays in is called the Fregoli -- but more largely on the universal conundrum of personal identity. It gets into your head and stays there like an unsettling dream.