Stories can be told via any medium. Animation is unique in that you can do anything you want; you aren’t bound by the spatial constraints and the visual limitations of the real world, but only by your imagination. Animation can be harnessed for more than disposable entertainment, and Anomalisa (2015) is an indispensable example of the strengths of that medium.
The film is a stop-motion production from Starburns Industries co-directed by both Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman and produced by Rosa Tran. The project is based on a sound play that was written by Kaufman and performed as a limited engagement in Los Angeles.
It was through this sound play that the project ended up on Kickstarter, was successfully funded and then blossomed with the support of private investors. Anomalisa was a labor of love that was crafted outside of the traditional studio system, and it shows. It’s a unique experience and yet is imbued by Kaufman’s voice from start to finish.
Charlie Kaufman is a filmmaker whose work boasts fantastical conceits grounded in truth, such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which is a story about a couple who have erased each other from their minds after a break-up.
What makes Kaufman exceptional is his nuanced approach to stories, honesty in his characters and his observational humor. Few writers can take introspection and make it stimulating on every level. Kaufman’s work often centers upon the human psyche and, like the human mind, is usually multi-faceted.
The emotional aftermath lingers long after you experience it, and Anomalisa is no exception.
Anomalisa follows Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a self-help author and motivational speaker who is fed up with the typical humdrum of his life and travels to Cincinnati to deliver a speech and promote his latest book.
He checks into “The Fregoli,” and meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a demure woman who bears an emotional trauma conveyed through her mannerisms and manifested physically in a facial scar. Lisa changes everything. The movie tackles Michael’s obsession with her and their relationship, which culminates in a heart-rending final act. Actor Tom Noonan plays a pivotal part in the movie with an ingenious metaphorical device that I won’t spoil for you.
There are two constants that are essential to lasting art: It must tell the truth, and it must not judge. It’s important to understand that everyone is the protagonist of their own story — even the antagonist. How Michael and Lisa are viewed depends on whom you identify with by the time the credits roll.
Regardless of whom you identify with, both characters are three-dimensional. It’s this precise clarity that permeates throughout all of Kaufman’s work. He takes us to uncomfortable, but necessary, places and doesn’t forget to balance his stories with levity, and most importantly, hope.
Kaufman has a singular voice that doesn’t get bogged down by superficial things but instead digs deeper. Anomalisa is about frailty, ego and self-destructive behavior. The film is rife with complex themes, and I’m excited to revisit it to see how my interpretation of it might change.
It’s impossible to soak in all the details of Anomalisa upon your first viewing. The “seams” of the puppets’ faces, as well as the “ruffles” in hair and clothing due to minute spatial differences between frames, are ingenious economic choices that enrich the film’s central themes of subjectivity. I’d elaborate, but it’d require spoiling a major reveal and the less you know, the better your experience.
The sets are intricate and feel lived-in. Seeing Michael’s room at “The Fregoli” made me think, "I’ve stayed in that hotel room before."
Despite the tedium of stop-motion, the movie incorporates intricate camera movements and rich compositions. The intentional flaws punctuate the aesthetic and almost make Anomalisa feel tangible.
Kaufman, Johnson and all of the talented people at Starburns Industries have endowed inanimate objects with more life and character than many live-action projects accomplish. Through three years of pain-staking work, they’ve captured a remarkable story about humanity and made a film featuring puppets feel sincere, honest and genuinely human. Anomalisa is currently showing at the Enzian Theater. Ticket prices range from $8.50 to $11.
Michael Corbisiero is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.