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Review: Anomalisa – “Beautiful and tragic”

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Filmmaking combines many skills to accomplish its tasks, most go unnoticed by the casual audience goer and some unnoticed by a lot of critics. The reason for this is that these people are just so good at what they do. Getting the audience to care for characters on screen is a tough thing to do, we know they are just actors playing make-believe, we know it’s not real, but when it works we really make a connection to certain stories, certain character and certain worlds. Animation becomes even more difficult as the people presented on screen are clearly not real and the craft takes even more hard work to convince its viewers to connect.

Anomalisa is a stop-motion animation, the latest work from writer Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman has a knack for tapping into the very essence of humanity, our hopes and fears, loneliness and longing, love and loss. Can he make us feel the same way about twelve inch puppets as he can with flesh and blood actors? Is there a connect that viewers can feel or will we be somewhat distant from the story?

With Anomalisa, which he also co-directed, he explores the life and mind of Michael Stone (David Thewlis) a successful author who writes about customer service. Michael has travelled to Cincinnati to present a seminar but has become lost in the world. He perceives everything and everyone as mundane and similar, leaving him feeling alone despite having a wife and a son. We learn at the start that he left a woman some time ago without giving her any reasons and, apparently, out of the blue. During his stay at a hotel he meets a woman that changes his perspective and gives him hope. This woman is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Michael is instantly besotted with her for reasons he cannot explain, so much so that he intends to leave his wife and son to be with her.

What follows is a series of events that allows us to delve deeper into his mind and how he perceives people and this is where the movie truly becomes Kaufman-esque.

The true victory of the movie is that, yes, we do care and we do connect to the character of Michael. We are plunged into his boring life and, indeed, the first few scenes are relatively slow and mundane. We watch him become irritated with everyone he meets and notice that they are all very similar (all other characters, male and female, are voiced by Tom Noonan and all share the same face). We aren’t exactly sure why this is at first but the movie slowly gives us hints as to what make him see things this way.

The character of Lisa is a quirky, shy and awkward oddball that is very much believable and we have no problem accepting why Michael is drawn to her and how he falls in love. The subtle performance of the animation along with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s voice is the main reason behind this along with the screenplays realistic and honest dialogue.

Everything works in this movie. There has been so much thought put into the screenplay, filming, editing and, of course, the animation. Yes, this is a stop-motion animation and one of the best looking ones to date. Not because it is flashy or high-tech, but because it is pure. Every scene and movement is crafted like a real piece of film, each character is wonderfully detailed. The movements of the characters feel so real because there are so many subtle things in their performances that it feels like real people are there, even if the visuals tell us otherwise. This painstaking attention to detail adds so much weight to the characters, if they had felt less real then the wonderful screenplay wouldn’t be as powerful.

The tale is both beautiful and tragic at the same time, its subtleties may go over the heads of some people who don’t know what to expect but it doesn’t pander to the audience. The hints and clues are there as well as enough ambiguity to leave us thinking and to let us form answers in our own minds.

It is a delight to watch and experience and is probably Kaufman’s most accessible movie to date. The story is much simpler than his other works but retains the human touch. It explores similar themes of love and loss as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has a few quirky elements to it but not as many as Being John Malkovich ensuring that newcomers will feel welcome but also Kaufman fans can revel in it.

Can people change who they are? What if they find the right person? Are we to blame for how we act and feel or are other people the cause of our pain? All of these questions are addressed but don’t expect any of them to be fully resolved. If you want to see two puppets show you want it is to be human then look no further.

5-out-of-5

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