Sunday, April 3, 2016

Confronting "Anomalisa"

I've been putting off writing about "Anomalisa," because I don't want to face the fact that I didn't like it.  Charlie Kaufmann's last film, the magnificent "Synecdoche, New York," was my favorite of the entire first decade of this century.  I was devastated when the "Frank of Francis" project fell apart in 2012, and hopeful enough to contribute a few dollars to the Kickstarter for "Anomalisa."  And after years of waiting, the film finally premiered to rapturous reviews from the critics.  And I didn't like it.

At the outset, the premise certainly seems daring.  "Anomalisa" is a stop-motion animated film aimed at grown-ups, about ordinary, mundane people.  The main character is a man named Michael (David Thewlis) who comes to Cincinnati one rainy, glum night to attend a conference.  He's a customer service guru who ironically hates people, and no wonder, since everyone else in his universe is voiced by Tom Noonan, including Michael's wife and son.  But at the hotel, miraculously, Michael hears a new, unique voice.  This belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young woman who will be attending the same conference as Michael.  But as he grows closer to Lisa, Michael also starts having delusions that everyone else in the world is becoming the same, sharing the same face as well as the same voice.

The fine animators at Starburns Studios deserve plenty of kudos for their lovely, subtle animation, including an admirably candid sex scene.  Michael and Lisa in particular are amazing to look at, with incredibly expressive features.  Countless hours surely went into making sure that the smallest details of the miniature hotel rooms, seedy shops, and taxi cab interiors looked perfect.  Moreover, the medium fits the story, the tactility of the puppet figures and little imperfections of the old-school stop-motion giving the performances a unique warmth and vulnerability.  So much care and attention was expended on bringing this story to life, it feels positively ungrateful of me to find fault with it.  But here we go.

"Anomalisa" was originally conceived as a short, based off one of Charlie Kaufman's existing plays, and I think it would have worked better as a short.  There's a definite sense of material being stretched out to fill a whole feature, and I found myself frustrated at the limited scale of the project after the boundlessness of "Synecdoche" and "Being John Malkovich," which have some of the same themes in common.  This is definitely Kaufman's work, touching on many of his favorite themes and ideas, but it felt truncated in some spots, and in others it felt like it was stalling for time.  I understand why so much time was spent establishing how banal and awful Michael's everyday encounters with other people were, but at the same time they were endless and grating.  The last act, however, felt rushed, and the resolution was a messy, awkward muddle, with some of the cringiest humor I've seen all year.

I think a lot of my frustrations boil down to the fact that Michael is a terrible person who I never sympathized with.  Now, plenty of Kaufman's male protagonists are terrible people, but their humanity is also very evident in the face of all the existential crises that are inflicted on them.  Michael is interesting, in that he sees and hears the world in a unique way.  David Thewlis imbues him with quiet sadness and desperation, but also an aggressive self-righteousness in his interactions.  Michael's ego would likely have been deftly deflated in a longer Kaufman film, leaving him to reflect on his shortcomings, but there wasn't time for that in "Anomalisa," so we're left with a narrative that often seems to be making excuses for Michael's bad behavior.

His brief time with Lisa, however, is a highlight.  She's a very ordinary woman who, to Michael's eyes and ears, is someone extraordinarily special.  I love how their little romance plays out, and Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance is unselfconscious and just a little bit nutty in the right ways.  You know immediately that she and Michael won't be a good match in the long run, making the whole encounter bittersweet.  But it's easy to forget in the moment, when she's singing Cyndi Lauper or fiddling with her hair.  All those little human behaviors that the animators took the time to capture are so well observed and make such a difference.  There aren't many live action romances from 2015 that compare.

I admire "Anomalisa" very much, and I'll surely be watching it again soon.  By any measure, this film is an impressive achievement, and deserves all the praise it's getting.  However, I found it too flawed and too alienating to make the kind of impact on me that Kaufman's best films have - it feels incomplete, like a test run for something bigger.  I'll be waiting impatiently for his next one though, and hoping that it won't take a Kickstarter campaign to get it made.    

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