Finding himself at odds with the world around him, despite all visages of a successful and happy life in place, Michael (David Thewlis) experiences a night of an internalized existential crisis. Stricken by life’s supposed mundanity, he finds a few hours of bliss while on tour for his new novel. Michael meets a woman who could be the love of his life and the film asks if that even matters. Charlie Kaufman always finds a way to sink his scripts in the most uncomfortable interactions whether they’re introspective or not, something that he and Duke Johnson’s newest film Anomalisa excels at.
There were moments of the film that positively stunned me due to their emotional vulnerability. There were no smokescreens and the raw feelings of regret, insecurity and crippling self-doubt were suffocating. Every move that Michael made was laden with dread, except for the moments he spends with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa,who is having quite the year between this and The Hateful Eight. Lisa is at first glance very similar to Michael. The main difference being how her insecurities are very externalized, opposed to Michael who keeps his inside. Then the movie moves past the introductions and the awkward flirting and they move to Michael’s hotel room, just the two of them and you begin to see just how different they are. This is no greater realized in a scene involving Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which I wouldn’t dare spoil.
While Michael’s feelings of displacement manifest itself in a low simmering rage mixed with apathy, Lisa’s is lonely but touchingly optimistic. Just because she believes herself unworthy of love and success doesn’t mean she doesn’t still want them or doesn’t still long for them. Lisa is a dreamer compared to Michael’s cynic, which is what draws him initially to her in the first place. For all of her of insecurity she’s remained untouched by the worlds skepticism. In a world that he perceives as being all the same, Lisa is a light beckoning him in. There’s a reason why everyone else in his life from his son and wife to an ex and a hotel clerk are all voiced by Tom Noonan; to Michael, Lisa is a singularity, a rare occurrence in his bleak and graying every day life. However, it’s not long before what in a drunken haze he found cherishable he then finds repulsive in the light of day, further proposing the idea that Michael’s unhappiness is of his own making. Something that’s further explored throughout the film when he’s hardly painted to be a saint.
Anomalisa hits its peak in its second act with a thundering crescendo that leaves you speechless, daring to make us as an audience forget that we’re watching a stop motion, animated creation and not real actors because of how real, how crucially human they’ve made them seem. It’s the life that the cast and creators breathe into the world and Michael and Lisa that makes it so gripping. The choice to use animation could have seemed gimmicky but instead it only feeds into the films emotional skeleton. It’s all so meticulously choreographed, the voice work by Thewlis and Leigh so emotive that the ending product is all the more affecting because of it’s atypical platform. Animated films have always been used to tell stories that are larger than life and most certainly larger than we are, while also finding a way to tug at our heart strings (Inside Out being a great recent example). The animation is a Trojan horse for a larger, more complex issue, when done well at least and studios such as Studio Ghibli, Laika, Pixar and recent films such as the How to Train Your Dragon series and Song of the Sea. Johnson and Kaufman join the ranks by allowing their imagery to veer into the surreal while keeping their narrative seeped in sadness, very much grounded in reality.
The first and third acts falter due to just how great the self-contained second is but there is no doubt that Anomalisa is a successfully riveting film, an odd mix of screw ball humor and painful self-reflective drama that isn’t afraid to point out the best and worst in people.
Anomalisa is out now.