Allow me to compare the mind of Charlie Kaufman to Brussels sprouts. After all, his work, just like the little vegetable, is an acquired taste. The notion that actor John Malkovich’s brain could be accessed through a door located behind a filing cabinet on the 7-1/2th floor of a Manhattan office building is either beyond strange or pure genius. The same can be said of the story of Joel and Clementine, former lovers who don’t remember they were once a couple because their memories of their relationship were erased. Both BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND are, depending on your point of view, either too weird for words or unique in their approach and absolutely fascinating to watch. My vote is for the latter.
Kaufman is back, this time teaming up with stop-motion animator, Duke Johnson. Like Kaufman’s other works, ANOMALISA is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The story is simple enough: Middle-aged, customer service motivational speaker, Michael Stone, is having a mild, mid-life crisis. He sees life as a monotone. Everyone looks the same and sounds the same. He loves his wife and young son but he’s not passionate about them. He’s not passionate about anything, not even his work. An upcoming speaking engagement in Cincinnati doesn’t do much to lift his spirits. The hotel room, at the very aptly named The Frigoli (look it up), looks like every other 4-star hotel room out there. A meeting with an old flame in the hotel bar doesn’t go well either. She looks and sounds like everyone else too. Michael’s demeanor starts to change, though, when he meets Lisa, a naïve, customer services rep for a baked-goods firm, who drove in from Akron with her friend Emily to hear his lecture. Lisa looks and sounds different from everyone else in Michael’s world and he is intrigued. One of Michael’s customer service mantras is to “look for what is special in each individual and focus on that”. With Lisa, Michael is able to do just that.
On the surface, this all sounds rather mundane but here’s where ANOMALISA is different. All the characters are 12-inch puppets. There are no actors playing Michael, Lisa and all the others – only their voices. David Thewlis (The HARRY POTTER series) voices Michael, Jennifer Jason Leigh (THE HATEFUL EIGHT) voices Lisa, and Tom Noonan (TV’s DAMAGES) voices everyone else. That’s right – everyone… and all with the same inflection throughout. So Michael’s perception is reality. Everyone does sound the same and, thanks to Duke Johnson, they all (except for Michael and Lisa) look the same too. Genius!
Granted, listening to everyone sound the same takes some getting used to but once you get your head around that, the movie really is a pure joy to behold. It doesn’t take long before you forget that you’re watching stop-motion animation. The effort that went into capturing each minute movement of the puppets is astounding. Not surprisingly, the film won the Grand Jury prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Film at this year’s Oscars®.
Be forewarned, though, that the film has received a Category III rating here and for very good reason. There is a sex scene between Michael and Lisa that leaves very little to the imagination. If you thought the book on puppet sex was written with the film TEAM AMERICA, it wasn’t. This was both eye opening and jaw dropping!
Just like Brussels sprouts, ANOMALISA is not to everyone’s taste. The story unfolds very slowly, and the monotonous voices can certainly test one’s patience. If you can get past those and appreciate the craft that went into making the film, you’ll be treated to a very special cinematic experience indeed.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 25:25.)
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