Generally, I title my reviews with what I think of as clever word play on the movie’s title: “The Distasteful Eight” or “Nothing Grows From The Martian Surface.” But in the case of Charlie Kaufman’s newest film, the delightful, stop-motion, animated Anomalisa, I can think of nothing more clever than the film’s own title, nor more succinct or revelatory. But I’ll try not to give much more away here; the reason will become apparent quickly.
The central catch of the movie, and presumably a big reason it is stop-motion, is that a single actor (the vocally talented Tom Noonan) voices almost all the characters in the movie. The movie’s protagonist, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a well-to-do but depressive customer service guru with a wife and little boy, has evidently been stuck in this monotonous universe for some time.
Michael is in Cincinnati on business and in the midst of his nihilistic mid-life crisis. He drinks heavily, tries and fails to rekindle a flame with an unstable ex-girlfriend, and seems on course to have what is likely another pathetic night. Then he hears a new voice, Lisa. Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a symphony in a monotonous universe. She is plain and unconfident, but her voice is warm and charming, and when Michael first hears it, he can’t believe his ears. And neither do we. (Watch how quickly you too will come to accept a world with just one, droning voice.) When we hear Lisa, we scramble to reconsider the whole uncanny world Kaufman has so slyly drawn us into. Have we really been hearing the same voice all this time? Is this new voice, this female voice, really special? Yes, it is. Neither Michael nor we can hear enough of it. And this shared experience of sudden wonder and instant love is the movie’s most beautiful and greatest feat.
This is some of the best stop-motion animation I’ve seen: daring, detailed, and fluid. And beyond its aesthetic appeal, stop-motion allows for a more magical world, even though the movie takes place in a world that is painfully real. It allows the whole universe to share one voice, but it also perfectly blends what actually happens and what just happens in Michael’s head, so much so that you will often find yourself wonderfully and unsettlingly unsure about what is going on. And this is why we sympathize so easily with Michael. He may be a miserable, ornery, and generally unpleasant man, but we can all understand his central struggle: to reach outside his self into the world around him. After all, isn’t that what our lives are like, too?
Anomalisa does more in just eighty minutes than most films do in three hours. It’s accessible and generous, but also intricate and demanding. The difficulty and the merit of the film lie in its impossibly complex final message. In the end, we’re not sure with whom we should be sympathizing, with whom we share a like mind. Is this film a masterful and genuine celebration of romance and optimism, or a cynical condemnation of the minutiae and banality of contemporary life? I’m sure the message could change every time you watch it, but maybe we’re not meant to decide. Maybe we’re supposed to look at this apparent contradiction and understand that both views of the world exist, both with their own justification, validity, and anomalies.
A meticulous, simple, tragic love story; one that asks some of the most probing questions of our world.