Release date: 11 March 2016
Running time: 90 mins
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
In 2008, acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman made his directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York, a baffling piece which saw Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director disappear down a rabbit hole of ambitious projects, as he attempted to create a life-size replica of New York City inside a warehouse. Kaufman’s follow up Anomalisa has a sense of art imitating life imitating art; the director spent three years painstakingly creating this moving and effective stop-motion drama. With over one thousand costumes and props meticulously constructed, everything in this world is built with the specific purpose of telling and intimate story about mental illness, loneliness, and 21st century malaise.
Anomalisa follows a day in the life of Michael Stone (voiced impeccably by Thewlis), a successful self-help guru, on a whirlwind trip to Cincinnati to deliver a talk about his latest book. During his stay he encounters chatty taxi drivers, former lovers, enthusiastic hotel staff and more than a few doting fans of his work. It sounds like the makings of one of the Coen brothers lighter offerings, but there is something far more worrying under the surface. For Michael, everyone’s the same, a slave to the drudgery of the 9 to 5 lifestyle with nothing interesting to say or contribute to the world. They even all share the same tedious, gender neutral voice (character actor Tom Noonan receives third billing as ‘Everyone Else’). That is until he meets Lisa, whose one of a kind voice is like music to his ears, a wonderful anomaly in a beige world, proving that perhaps life is not so empty.
Viewing the world through Michael’s eyes (not to mention listening through his ears), has an often comical effect through the absurdity of everyone speaking and acting the same. Kaufman’s driest-of-the-dry sense of humour is present throughout but first and foremost this is a drama about a man struggling to keep a grip on the world around him. The Fregoli delusion, a rare condition in which an individual believes different people are in fact just one person in disguise, is never expressly referenced here, but it is hinted at throughout (Michael stays at The Fregoli Hotel, Kaufman wrote the play on which the film is based under the pen name Francis Fregoli). Here the condition is intertwined with a sense that society is crumbling into a pit of mediocrity, the world as a whole mirroring our protagonists inner turmoil.
So as you would expect from Kaufman, a fairly inaccessible work, and if the harrowing portrayal of an obscure mental condition is not enough to put you off, then perhaps the marionette erotica will do the trick. Yes Anomalisa follows in the footsteps of Team America: World Police by having a full blown puppet sex scene. Here it plays out with a complete straight face, and if you can get over the bizarreness of seeing a stop motion figure perform cunnilingus, there is a beauty in the fragility of two vulnerable characters allowing themselves a moment of pleasure. The sequence almost stand as a metaphor for Kaufman’s directing style as a whole; intentionally off-putting and more than a little awkward- almost as if he doesn’t want you to watch- but with real rewards for those willing to take the plunge. Art imitating life indeed.
Anomalisa screened as the closing Gala film for the Glasgow Film Festival on Sunday 28th of February and will be on general release on the 11th of March.