Review: Kaufman’s Anomalisa, Where Human Connections Are Rare and Fleeting

Mundanity. Dissatisfaction. Longing. These are abstract concepts, and difficult ones to explore on film. If there’s one man up to the challenge, though, it’s introvert extraordinaire and master of the mindfuck, Charlie Kaufman. Anomalisa, his first foray into animation, might tackle these themes with mixed success, but the result is something unique and undeniably human.

Anomalisa began life as a one-act ‘sound play’, and this shows. It’s a more minor work than Kaufman’s previous output; gone are the screwy plot devices of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, swapped for a low-key ‘day-or-so in the life of’ narrative structure that, even with its leisurely pace, only just stretches to 90 minutes. Still, the narrow timeline doesn’t necessarily equal a narrow scope, and there’s as much going on beneath the film’s muted surface as any of Kaufman or co-director Duke Johnson’s previous work.

Kaufman’s films tend to revolve around sad-sack middle-aged men: John Cusack’s creepy puppeteer in Being John Malkovich, the shy Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine, a monomaniacal Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York, even Kaufman’s own frustrated alter-ego in Adaptation. Here, David Thewlis’ Michael Stone is no exception, except we spend more one-on-one time with him while he (on paper) does less. He lands in Cincinnati for a conference, takes a taxi, books into a hotel. It’s hardly gripping but we sink into its mundane rhythm, soon realising that Michael is enduring something of an existential crisis. His world is coloured in shades of beige and everybody sounds the same (literally, with every secondary character from Michael’s taxi driver to his wife being voiced by Tom Noonan).

Anomalisa reaches for something profound, managing to tap into the tenuous and the transcendent

No real reasons are given for Michael’s dissatisfaction, however, meaning that while his emotions resonate it’s easy to grow impatient with him. His life is, by all accounts, not spectacularly difficult, and you frequently wonder if it’s his own attitude that keeps him stuck in this rut. Waiting around for somebody else to bring meaning to his life, he lapses into self-pity even when he’s the one making things worse. For anyone other than introspective middle-aged men, that might make for trying viewing.

If nothing else, though, this makes us share Michael’s jubilation when Lisa enters the picture. She is a totally ordinary woman, but to Michael and the audience alike she’s a revelation – charming, self-effacing and, courtesy of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s enchanting performance, the lone individual voice in a sea of uniformity. Their relationship is minutely observed, both characters grappling with their flaws and doubts as they strive for connection. They chat, drink and sing, before ending their evening with one of the most accurate sex scenes ever committed to film. It’s wobbly and awkward, summing up Anomalisa’s humane, perfectly detailed approach to its little stop-motion characters.

Without giving too much away, Anomalisa demonstrates that human connections are often as fleeting as they are rare. It is likely to leave a bittersweet taste in the mouth but, beyond that, its impact will vary. For every viewer that finds it revelatory, another will think it’s an exercise in navel-gazing. Still, in its own subdued way Anomalisa reaches for something profound, managing to tap into the tenuous and the transcendent. And how many films – animated or live-action – can really claim to do that?

Anomalisa, dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, starring David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Tom Noonan. Released 11th March 2016 by Paramount Pictures.

 

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About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

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