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Film Review: "Anomalisa” by Don Gibble

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Film Review: "Anomalisa”
by Don Gibble 

Whether in his screenplays for “Being John Malkovich”, “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, or his directing debut, “Synecdoche, New York”, Charlie Kaufman’s surreal, cerebral chronicles of despair, obsession and failure are like nothing else out there. So it was a given that his first animated feature, “Anomalisa”, co-directed with stop-motion specialist Duke Johnson, was going to be another idiosyncratic entry in a small but wildly distinctive body of work. However, that doesn’t do justice to the poignancy and emotional nuance of this funny-sad, haunting meditationon depression, disguised as a melancholy love story.

Translating a nonvisual performance piece to film might have been challenging, but no less than his collaborations with Spike Jonze or Michael Gondry, Kaufman’s work with Johnson has yielded something quite unique, graced by gorgeously plaintive music from Carter Burwell. The naïve-style puppet animation has similarities to the Adult Swim series “Moral Orel” and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole”, on which Johnson worked, as well as his stop-motion animated episode of “Community”.

 But there’s something more disquieting about these puppets. Their faces look like vintage marionette dolls, split into two plates, with seams cutting across the eyes and around the hair and jawlines. And the saggy, puffy imperfections of their bodies, when we see the two key characters naked, are heartbreakingly real.

 The film opens with a steadily amplified din of overtapping conversation, as Michael Stone (David Thewlis) flies into Cincinnati for a speaking engagement. A Brit living Los Angeles with his wife and son, he’s the author of a motivational book on customer service titled “How May I Help You Help Them?”, and a minor celebrity in his field. His darkly funny early interactions with various people – a seatmate on his flight, a chatty cab driver, he Fregoli Hotel desk clerk and bellboy – all suggest his barely contained impatience with their invasive behavior and ingratiating small talk.

Kaufman and Johnson create a vivid, dismally relatable world here, both droll and dreary, but fascinating precisely because of its numbing banality. Even the upscale, bland modernity of the suite that Michael checks into is observed with sly humor; it’s an instantly recognizable environment rendered absurd by the directors’ clarity of vision. And Michael’s tired routines – phone home, dial room service, practice his speech, go down the hall for ice, watch a snippet of “My Man Godfrey” on TV – begin to take on a strange profundity in their bleak ordinariness.

But antidepressants haven’t entirely dulled Michael’s desire to grasp at a moment of happiness. He tries to reconnect with a local woman, Bella Amarossi, on whom he walked out 11 years earlier. She has remained single and disappointed, and the pathos of her still-bruised feelings is unexpectedly raw. It doesn’t end well.

All the other characters, irrespective of gender, age or relationship to Michael, are voiced with scarcely modulated delivery by Tom Noonan. The one exception – or anomaly, if you will – is Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa, whose voice cuts through hotel walls and brain static to summon Michael out of his martini-dulled torpor It wouldn’t be Kaufman if all the pieces made perfect sense, and an antique Japanese mechanized doll that Michael purchases for his son at an erotica emporium is an amusing head-scratcher. But this is a wonderfully odd consideration of those questions about love, pain, solitude and human connection we all ask; its emotional power creeps out from under the subtle humor and leaves an imprint that lingers long after the movie is over. Definitely see this in a theater.