I’m not normally a fan of out-of-the-blue self-conscious animation. It might produce an interesting effect in a short film, but when it’s thrown into a feature it often takes away more opportunities than it gives. No film can run a full length on visual novelty alone. The usual way to sustain interest for that amount of time is to place identifiable human beings with a recognisable repertoire of emotional expression in the centre of the spectacle. It isn’t the only way, but it’s the most reliable way. If you’re going to close off that avenue, you’ll need to open up a new one pretty quickly.
The people in Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa all physically resemble robots, or plastic toys, with skin that looks like it’s been stuck on in pieces and could easily be pulled off at the seams. Most of their faces can pull off the familiar range of human expressions, but their eyes, the keys to the whole face, are strikingly empty. No matter how malleable their cheeks and brows may be, the whole visage always seems slightly off-kilter. Something always gets in the way of that automatic connection between character and audience member.
In a film like Wes Anderson’s claymation adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox, this stops its comical characters from being anything more than static blobs of clay. In Anomalisa, a film populated with realistically written characters, this takes their natural humanity and turns it askew. Kaufman’s script centres around a man named Michael Stone who is disillusioned by his spectacularly mundane life as a father, a husband and a customer service expert. A very familiar premise, but the style of the animation shows his disillusionment more completely and believably than any amount of dialogue ever could. What also helps is that while Michael is voiced by David Thewlis, almost everyone around him is voiced by Tom Noonan, a fact that slowly dawns on the audience as the film goes on. This has an uncanny way of equalizing the words said by Michael’s son, wife, ex-girlfriend, taxi driver and everyone else in his life. All of their stereotypical trappings are stripped away, as these figures are displayed in all their inane dullness.
You can imagine, then, Michael’s surprise when he meets a woman who is a miraculous anomaly: Lisa, the “Anomalisa” with the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Shy and self-deprecating, her different voice obviously suggests she has something inside her that no one else has, that she is a rare and beautiful spirit, or at least a kindred one during the night that Michael spends with her. If the rest of his personal life is unfulfilling that’s at least partly because it’s made up of Hollywood clichés who all literally sound the same to him. Lisa sounds different, but is that because she is, or because he has only just met her? Is she really hiding some rare gift, or is she just hiding. The special woman who’s unlike any woman the man has ever seen, but who has no idea how special she is is also a cliché. Is there anyone in the world who isn’t on some level a cliché and who has everything Michael is looking for?
In the world being crafted in Anomalisa, anything is possible. Any of the rules of our world might be broken, or changed, or ignored. It’s impossible even to be sure of what genre we’re in; the film flirts with and then turns down so many before it reaches its ending.
It’s not just the imagination of this film but also the story that always keeps its audience from going to autopilot. It’s one thing to ditch the rules, but the ingenuity of Kaufman and Johnson lies in the way they have made new rules that you can still follow, and, most importantly, that you want to follow.
Anomalisa is in cinemas now
Review written by Christian Tsoutsouvas