– by David Morgan-Brown
The films written (or directed) by Charlie Kaufman have some of the most mind-bendingly, gleefully surreal, and far-out work existing in modern cinema, but this isn’t the main reason people love him. At the core of it, each of his best films (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche New York) painfully look at the highs and lows (though mainly lows) of being a human. The directing styles of Spike Jonze, Michael Gondry, or Kaufman himself are fun and all, but they only go to enhance the craziness and confusion that comes with being a terribly aware and self-analytical person trying to find themselves in the world.
Now we have Kaufman’s second directorial effort (with co-director Duke Johnson) on Anomalisa that definitely has it’s far-out surreal moments, which I’m sure Kaufman couldn’t resist now that he’s working on a stop-motion film that could really go to town with his sort of style. But this is the most restrained, most grounded, and maybe even most human film from him.
The film takes place over one night and at just about one location, a hotel, where inspirational speaker Michael Stone (David Thewlis) spends his lonely, jaded existence in for this time. However, he soon meets a fan of his work, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and the two gradually develop a one-night relationship. Their characters are fleshed out (not literally, they’re made of felt) through very long talkative scenes that feel much more life-like than movie-like. It actually reminded me of Before Sunrise, but with even more straight-to-the-point romantic dialogue as the characters very soon confide in each other their desires and disappointments.
Anomalisa, despite the cute but difficult title, is a singular piece of work, the use of realistic stop-motion only goes to ironically highlight just how in tune this cartoon is with the human condition — over the short run-time, we see how emotions can often barely be controlled, as awful as that can make people seem, but crushing self-awareness is what makes Michael so relatable and sympathetic. I tend to think great writing helps with humanising characters, and it certainly works here with long scenes and excellently expressive puppetry showing us these two people teasing their desires with each other.
There’s hasn’t been a film like Anomalisa in a very long time. It’s a unique vision of a very small and simple tale that feels much more grandiose when you watch it because of the detailed, realistic-looking, and thoroughly well shot miniature world these stop-motion characters are in. Given this is the most straight-forward of Kaufman’s films, this also makes it his most accessible, so even if you’re not a fan of his far-out work, this is a film worth watching for anyone hunting a genuine romance film.