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Anomalisa Review: Charlie Kaufman Reinvents Stop Motion

By Brian Gallagher — November 11th, 2015

There is a common movie marketing technique that I call "title-checking," which is often employed when a filmmaker/producer's movies have more recognition than the people who made them. For example, one of the Paddington trailers states "From the producer of Harry Potter," which certainly says a lot more to your average movie-goer than "From producer David Heyman." I bring this up because, if such a tactic would ever be used for the stop motion masterpiece Anomalisa, it would make for one of the most bizarre and wide-ranging promotional blurbs in cinematic history. Check this out: "From the writer of Being John Malkovich and the producers of Community, Robot Chicken and You're Next..." These are the diverse minds behind Anomalisa, a ray of cinematic hope for originality in Hollywood that very well may be one of the best movies of the year.

Seven years after making his directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman finally makes his return to the big screen with Anomalisa, which screened last night at AFI Fest in Hollywood. Armed with a simple yet ambitious script, this film marks his first foray into stop motion animation. Fans of Charlie Kaufman's work (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) will recognize the same types of identity-centric themes in Anomalisa, which follows a successful self-help author named Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who can't escape the mundane nature of his life while on a business trip to Cincinnati, until he meets a unique young woman named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh). On paper, it may not sound like much, but the brilliance of Charlie Kaufman's story is illuminated so breathtakingly through stop motion in ways that mere words can hardly describe.

The story itself has unconventional origins, conceived as a "sound play," where Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Thewlis and the third cast member, Tom Noonan, who voices literally "everyone else," simply read their lines from behind a desk, while a foley artist created the accompanying sounds. In the same tradition as old-timey radio plays, the listener was responsible for creating the visuals inside their heads. In a strange way, the stop motion characters in Anomalisa simulate the same kind of environment. While the visual artistry and the level of expression of these puppets is truly remarkable, there is still just enough that we don't know, that we can't "see," like we could if two beautiful actors were playing out the same scene. This creates a simply remarkable dynamic, in tandem with the ways in which Charlie Kaufman reveals details about his characters.

There isn't much we learn about Michael at all through roughly the first half of the movie, except that he is in Cincinnati for one night on business, he has an ex-flame in town whom he awkwardly re-connects with, and he isn't a huge fan of small talk. Eventually we learn that he's actually a successful self-help author, which is the same scene we meet Lisa and her co-worker Emily (Tom Noonan), who have traveled to this convention just to hear his speech. Michael's profession is a huge detail that 99.9% of screenwriters would convey in any way possible as soon as we meet him. Instead, Kaufman takes an onion-peeling approach to developing Michael, revealing more and more about this character as each layer is proverbially stripped away, in the most organic way possible.

When we first meet Lisa and Emily, Lisa is portrayed as the "star-struck" nervous wreck, who second-guesses everything she says in front of this important man, Michael, while Emily is certainly more charming and at ease with the opposite sex. This is almost exclusively conveyed through Tom Noonan and Jennifer Jason Leigh's voices, and while the puppets for Lisa and Emily are certainly distinct, they cannot convey the same level of "beauty" we can see with our own eyes if a supermodel is standing next to a "girl next door" type. Michael ends up taking both ladies down to the hotel bar for drinks, and all three of them have a good time, although both Lisa and Emily are considerably surprised when Michael asks Lisa to have a "nightcap" with him, instead of Emily. Lisa continually reminds Michael that "most guys" go for Emily, and not her, which is utterly profound because our standards of beauty, and the way characters like Lisa and Emily are visually portrayed in a live action movie, simply do not translate in this stop motion world.

There is so much more going on beneath the surface of Anomalisa, from every other character besides Michael and Lisa being voiced by Tom Noonan, to a bizarre Japanese sex doll, the visible lines shown on the puppets' faces and even the fictional Al Fregoli Hotel. If you Google "Fregoli delusion," you'll realize that it's no coincidence that every other character not only sounds the same, but looks the same as well. But, atop the surface, the visuals are simply stunning, with Charlie Kaufman directing alongside co-director Duke Johnson, who has worked on Moral Orel and directed the infamous stop motion Christmas episode of Community. The co-director is part of Starburns Industries, a stop motion animation company lead by Community creator Dan Harmon, Dino Stamatopoulos (the actual Starburns from Community), who both produce this incredible film alongside Snoot Entertainment's Keith Calder (You're Next, The Guest). Together, this unique collective of talented artists have put together one of those rare and astounding films that truly has to be seen to be believed, on a visual, emotional and psychological level.

Anomalisa debuts on December 30 in limited release, before expanding nationwide in January 2016. The film was recently put on the "short list" of the Academy's contenders for Best Animated Movie at the 2016 Oscars. Anomalisa has been critically praised over the past few months after debuting on the festival circuit, but we'll have to wait and see how audiences respond to it. Chime in with your thoughts on my review below, or on Twitter @GallagherMW.

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