The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"ANOMALISA"

Anomalisa

Thank goodness for Charlie Kaufman. In a time when few screenwriters have name recognition among the general public, he has achieved fame though his unique – and uniquely odd – scripts, such as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation. You never know what you're going to get with a Kaufman picture, which makes them exciting in a way few films are. His newest work, co-directed with Duke Johnson, is Anomalisa. It's just as unpredictable as you'd expect. This is a stop-motion animated film about lifelike people dealing with very adult problems.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a depressed, deeply unhappy author of books dedicated to helping businesses improve customer service. We find him arriving in a city for a speaking engagement. Once ensconced in his fancy hotel room, Michael calls his wife, to whom he has become distant, then decides to make contact with an old flame who happens to live in town. Their reunion doesn't lead to the fulfillment or ego boost he anticipates it will. It does, however, lead to him meeting Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a peppy but insecure customer service rep who worships his books and is at the hotel to hear him speak. Lisa is a touch overweight and self-conscious of some slight facial disfigurement. Their individual emotional needs draw them together in a powerful way that is surprising for both. And then things start to get weird.

Anomalisa, as its title suggests, is about anomalies and how people respond to them. (The title is a mash-up of “anomaly” and “Lisa.”) Michael and Lisa are both intensely dissatisfied. Their paths cross, they share a night together, and their subsequent reactions to this chance meeting are quite different. The theme of the movie is that life is all in how you look at it. You can look at anomalies as being little failures that accumulate, or you can look at them as opportunities for growth. How you feel about life in general will depend on which interpretation you choose.

The most stunning aspect of the film is that, in spite of being animated, it's not a cartoon. The characters speak mature dialogue and deal with very complex human feelings. (Thewlis and Leigh are magnificent, by the way.) There's even an incredibly graphic sex scene that serves as the story's centerpiece. All the sets are designed to look like real locations, with no overt stylization. Nothing is exaggerated about the figures used to bring Michael and Lisa to life, either. These are not animated humans in the way Tim Burton made them in Frankenweenie or the folks at Laika did in The Boxtrolls. They could just as easily be played by live actors. That contrast between form and content is a big part of what makes Anomalisa so enticing. It allows us to focus intently on the meaning of the story.

At the same time, this wouldn't be a Charlie Kaufman picture if it wasn't at least a little “out there.” Some quirky choices permeate the film, starting with the fact that all the characters who aren't Michael and Lisa look alike facially, and all are voiced by actor Tom Noonan. (Even the females.) The plot even takes a twist into a weird Twilight Zone-y place at one point. This shift symbolizes much of the internal angst Michael feels. Elements such as these give Anomalisa a humorous quality that helps balance out the often intense emotional content.

Truth be told, there's so much in this film that you probably need to see it more than once to digest it all. And believe me, you'll want to. This is not Charlie Kaufman merely creating a display of offbeat imagination; it's him attempting to say something profound, via a format that is used primarily for light entertainment. Anomalisa is hypnotic for that reason. The movie forces you to keep thinking about it for days afterward.

( out of four)


Anomalisa is rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.


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