Anomalisa (Paramount Pictures, R)

Anomalisa_75 I expect Anomalisa to work well as a litmus test for people who think they know anything about stop-motion animation.

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 Going back and reviewing the notes I took at the press screening of the new Charlie Kaufman/Duke Johnson film Anomalisa, the last thing I wrote is, “This is a movie I’m going to get into fights about.” I remember I told this to the film’s publicist on the way out of the theatre, and he asked which side of the fight I’d be on. It’s that kind of movie.

For the record, I’m firmly on the side of the supporters, to the extent that I named it the #3 best movie of 2015 (it’s been in limited release in the United States since late 2015, and played the St. Louis International Film Festival in November, though it’s only opening in general release in St. Louis on 1/15). The thing that’s going to make it a divisive movie is not that it’s controversial or shocking in any way, but that it’s purposefully mundane, with just a twinge of artiness thrown in.

You’ll notice the film has two directors. I’ll assume you’re already familiar with Charlie Kaufman (you should be!), the writer of such modern masterpieces as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation. His only previous directing credit on a feature film was for 2008’s Synecdoche, New York, a film that I liked but did not love. The other director on Anomalisa, Duke Johnson, is from St. Louis, and is a stop-motion animator, probably best known (until now) for being the guy behind the episode of TV’s Community entitled “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” which was made in the style of classic stop-motion animation Christmas specials, such as 1964’s Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Again, Anomalisa is done in stop-motion animation, Mr. Johnson’s specialty. However, unlike the fantastical stop-motion we’ve been seeing lately (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Nightmare Before Christmas, etc.), Anomalisa is all planes, cabs, sad hotel rooms, bars. And, most especially, people—I am not exaggerating when I say that the stop-motion people in Anomalisa look more like real human beings than do our famously beautiful actors and actresses who populate just about every movie ever made.

Our main character is Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a motivational speaker in an existential crisis, who is stuck in Cincinnati and surrounded by the above-mentioned mundane surroundings. There are some very compelling moments of discovery for the viewer early on in the film as Stone’s world is being built, and you come to decipher what Kaufman and Johnson are trying to do with the material. Suffice it to say, eventually, a love interest for Stone pops up in the form of a girl named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, here doing better work than her mostly-justifiedly acclaimed turn in The Hateful Eight), a shy girl staying at the same hotel as Stone and an avowed fan of a book he wrote.

A separate St. Louis publicist working on this film observed to me that Anomalisa is the least-Charlie-Kaufman Charlie Kaufman movie. I can see the argument to be made there, but I’m actually of the opinion that it is the most-Charlie-Kaufman Charlie Kaufman movie, in that it takes some of the best things about his prior successes and combines them all into one. The whole of Anomalisa plays much like the scene in Being John Malkovich where Malkovich goes into his own portal; here he’s using fabulously original conceits to hide what is under the surface a really beautiful and insightful portrayal of modern love, a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; he builds a real and plain world that eventually falls in on itself like in Synecdoche, New York.

In the end, I expect Anomalisa to work well as a litmus test for people who think they know anything about stop-motion animation, and who think they know anything about originality in movies. If you don’t know anything about stop-motion, the animation here looks like it would be easy, probably because Stone doesn’t ever showily make complicated paper snowflakes with spiders in them, or whatever. When in fact, clearly a whole boatload of effort has gone into making Stone’s world feel real and plain—a scene set in a bustling bar must have been a nightmare to animate, for example, as it non-showily has A LOT of moving parts and people, which serve only to show Stone’s aloneness. Secondly, there are a lot of details here that almost invite the viewer to stop paying attention—aside from the boring settings (which are most especially piled on in the beginning of the film), Stone routinely has trouble getting his key card to his hotel room door to work, he has a boring job, and maybe most damningly for the embarrassingly unenlightened, he has a nude scene. As mentioned before, the puppets in Anomalisa look more real than “real” people do in other movies, and I bet a lot of modern American movie audiences won’t know what to do with an accurate visual representation of what a middle-aged man looks like nude, in what is a much more common body type than you see virtually ever depicted in Hollywood, the land of very skinny and comically fat people.

And a tip to those who don’t want to embarrass themselves at the box office: the title of this film is a combination of “anomaly” and “Lisa,” so it’s pronounced like “anomaly suh” (but one word). You’ll sound like a noob if you call it “animal eesa.” | Pete Timmermann

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