Monday, March 28, 2016


Anomalisa (2015)
Dir by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson
Written by Charlie Kaufman
Starring Puppets, David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Saying a film is “surprisingly simple” seems wrong in a film wholly populated by puppets, virtually all of whom have the exact same face and voice (Tom Noonan, ROBOCOP 2), especially when I tell you it’s full of strange metaphors (the hotel is called The Fregoli) and startling moments of dreamy surrealism. But when the writer / co-director is Charlie Kaufman, it’s almost stranger to have a film with no bizarre high concept hook than it would be to have a film about an office building equipped with a shortcut into John Malkovich’s brain. Surprisingly, though, ANOMALISA is a fairly small-scale personal drama, and Kaufman seems as comfortably at home here as he was in his last film, the crazy mind-bending metaphysical nightmare SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK. Turns out when you clear away all the cleverness and high-concept weirdness which define his other movies, there’s still a real sad, thoughtful human core, which shines through here. And a surprisingly adult one; this is one of the most singularly grown-up love stories I’ve seen in a good bit, presenting complex, well-rounded characters and fully, frankly, probing their dense inner worlds and the way those worlds connect and contradict each other over the course of two nights in a hotel room.

Kaufman handles the puppet angle beautifully (with a co-direction from Duke Johnson, longtime Moral Orel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole stop-motion expert), getting rich, interesting performances out of the stop-motion faces and just barely flirting with the deeply strange artifice of it (which is the perfect amount -- to ignore it completely would make it feel meaningless, but to overplay it would feel gimmicky). It looks absolutely gorgeous, an entirely believable little world with just a light dusting of surreal dreaminess. But all that is hardly a surprise for Kaufman. What did sort of bowl me over is the real sympathy --maybe even affection-- Kaufman seems to have for these characters. People were never really his thing before, and his movies tend to be populated by bracing, sometimes abrasive emotionally stunted intellectuals. But here even Michael – a successful inspirational speaker who is fighting his crushing emotional isolation by trying as hard as he can to cheat on his wife while he’s traveling-- if afforded a surprising amount of dignity and sympathy (probably more than he deserves) even while the movie never soft-pedals his serious character flaws. I mean, when you come down to it he’s a real asshole, but maybe he’s trying to do the best he can with what he has, and he certainly suffers at least as much misery from his own actions as he inflicts. The way David Thewlis voices him –with a tender resignation which makes it sound like every spoken word takes enormous effort just to drag itself out of his mind into reality– makes it impossible to really hate him. He’s a pitiable character, someone who probably wants to do the right thing but is so hopelessly lost in his own failures and desperation that he barely even knows which way is up anymore.

Even more surprising, though, is how kindly Kaufman treats Lisa, the other major character here. She is an insecure young woman who inexplicably becomes the subject of Michael's erotic and existential fixation -- a role she finds baffling but not entirely unpleasant. Kaufman does nothing whatsoever to brush over her flaws, but I think he finds a certain real heroism in how middling and unspecial she is. Jennifer Jason Leigh -- a universe away from her delectably loathsome HATEFUL EIGHT role-- instills her with a wonderful vulnerability and an unexpected resoluteness. I like that, SPOILERS FOLLOW, it turns out that while Michael may have ruined plenty of lives, especially his own, here’s one case where he actually improved a life, albeit without really meaning to. There’s nothing at all actually special about Lisa --and she knows that so thoroughly it’s probably her defining characteristic-- but her night with Michael actually gives her a different way of imagining herself, not better than she is, but good as she is, on her own terms. It’s a surprisingly upbeat ending for a mostly downbeat film, and I actually like that about it. It feels like maturity on Kaufman’s part; I think a younger version of him would have thought it would be hipper to end with another nihilistic jab at the pettiness of it all. ANOMALISA Kaufman actually seems kind of happy to have brought a little bit of good to his characters, even on a very small scale. END SPOILER.

I think it is an interesting open question whether the movie’s conventions (animation, everyone having the same voice, Michael’s tacit understanding that he’s a puppet) are stylistic ways of conveying his alienation, or if this is the literal way he’s perceiving the world, and he actually is mentally ill. I tend to think, given Kaufman’s output, it’s more likely to be symbolic, but it’s certainly possible to argue otherwise. And there’s plenty of stuff in there like that. The one female voice in the movie which is not Leigh is the voice of an animatronic geisha that Michael seems inexplicably drawn to. Is this representative of the mechanized, objectified way he views women and sex, or is it a representation of his own empty, mechanized facsimile of humanity? Or something else entirely? These are rewarding question to ponder, but honestly the movie’s at its best in small, human moments, including, um, the sex scene. TEAM AMERICA thought puppet sex was hi-larious sport, but in the sensitive hands of Kaufman and Johnson, things are a little different. They’re very normal-looking “people” --and that’s normal for real life, not for movies, which is code for “they’re a little overweight compared to pretty much anyone you might see in a movie taking their clothes off”-- but it’s not staged for comedy, they’re both really into it, their excitement overcoming the inherent slight awkwardness and nervousness of the situation. It feels as frank and honest a depiction of sex in all its tender complexities as I’ve seen in an American film in a very long time.

I’ve always been a fan of Kaufman, and I’ll be delighted to see what he does next to blow our fuckin’ minds with some weird deconstructed razzamatazz. But here’s hoping that ANOMALISA isn’t as anomalous as its name would suggest. Turns out when he can set his feet down somewhere closer to reality (while still not quite settling for something so mundane) Kaufman has a real gift for unravelling unglamorous --but deeply human-- failing. It’s unsentimental and unflinching, but not altogether unsympathetic, and the light touches of surrealism somehow actually makes it feel all the more real, full of the messy subjective cloud of personal fantasy that perpetually separates us from reality, and from each other. Really, the only false note in the whole thing is the bizarre idea that a world populated by nothing but Tom Noonans wouldn’t be a super awesome place to live.

But I suppose you can’t have everything.

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