Friday, January 15, 2016

Anomalisa: A conundrum wrapped in an enigma

Anomalisa (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity, graphic nudity and strong sexual content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.22.16

This may not be the most pointlessly weird movie ever made, but it’ll do until that one comes along.

Everybody in the world sounds exactly the same to Michael, until a chance encounter with
Lisa, who speaks in a voice that is uniquely her own. Alas, this film makes very little use
of this intriguing notion, and devolves into an incomprehensible mess.
Charlie Kaufman has built his reputation on strange, way-out-of-the-box projects ever since he scripted the deliciously wacky Being John Malkovich for director Spike Jonze. Kaufman was less successful with Human Nature, alongside director Michel Gondry, but once again delivered the goods — and earned an Academy Award nomination, alongside his “fictitious twin brother” Donald — after re-uniting with Jonze for Adaptation.

Kaufman’s magnum opus, however, came with 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s bizarre, challenging and at times self-indulgently irritating, but it’s also ferociously clever, poignant and, in its own unusual way, one of the most insightful love stories ever written. (To give credit where due, Kaufman based his script on a story co-written with Gondry and Pierre Bismuth.)

The past decade, however, hasn’t been nearly as kind to Kaufman. His directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, is an unwatchably pretentious slog; and I’m not certain anybody even saw his 2014 TV movie, How and Why.

Which brings us to Anomalisa.

To be fair, it isn’t really long enough to be boring. But it’s nonetheless inane and meaningless, and an utter waste of the gorgeous, replacement/stop-motion puppet animation that has been employed to bring this story to the big screen (and which just earned the film an Academy Award nomination).

If this film hoped to duplicate the success of Wes Anderson’s similarly animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, Kaufman needed a much sharper script: for openers, one that could sustain its 90-minute length. Anomalisa offers about 15 minutes’ worth of story, along with a few trivial (and rather sexist) observations about human mating habits. 

Yes, Kaufman tries for some social analysis, but you’ll go crazy trying to determine the point he’s attempting to make.

Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) is a motivational speaker coasting on the success of a best-selling book — How May I Help You Help Them? — that has been embraced by customer service clerks, salespeople and telemarketers across the country. Having flown into Cincinnati for a lecture, he begins a one-night hotel stay by looking up an old girlfriend, Bella (never mind the wife and child back home, in Los Angeles).

The ongoing gimmick is that everybody else Michael encounters — whether men, women or children — speaks in the same masculine voice (actor Tom Noonan, in all cases). The point, one assumes, is that Michael has become crippled by his dull and commonplace life: just one more drone in a “system” that has, over time, produced lowest-denominator conformity from everybody.

Rather ironic for a motivational speaker, but we’ll let that slide.

The potential hookup with Bella stalls on the runway; Michael morosely heads back to his room. And then, amazingly, he hears a woman’s voice coming from a few rooms away: somebody who sounds different than everybody else. He quickly follows the sound and meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a shy, socially awkward sales rep who happens to be one of his most devoted fans, and is attending his talk with her friend, Emily (Noonan again).

Michael rejoices in her voice, which pleasures him in ways he cannot articulate; she, in turn, finds his awkwardness oddly charming. The question, then: Have Michael and Lisa found, in each other, their true love?

Difficult to say.

While the subsequent slow build to intimacy and sex is delicately scripted by Kaufman, and might be quite sweet if delivered by actual human actors, it’s ludicrous when handled by puppets: a stylistic leap I simply couldn’t make. I kept remembering the deliberately coarse and satirical puppet sex in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police, which at least didn’t take itself seriously.

Kaufman, in great contrast, intends us to “feel the moment” when Michael goes down on Lisa ... and the sequence fails miserably. Indeed, numerous people jeered and snickered during Tuesday evening’s preview screening, and I wanted to join them.

As for what happens next ... wow. Following the next morning’s breakfast, Michael finds himself in a Kafka-esque and Orwellian nightmare where everybody in the hotel — guests and staff — knows, and is furious, that he has slept with Lisa. “Take me,” they all cry, “anybody but Lisa!”

I kept waiting for the sort of revelatory gotcha that Rod Serling would have penned: an expectation given additional weight when, at one point, the lower part of Michael’s face falls off. But no; Kaufman never goes there. Don’t waste time trying to anticipate what’s being done by the people behind the curtain; there aren’t any such people, nor is there a curtain.

The denouement is both puzzling and infuriating: not even logically consistent within Kaufman’s already warped premise.

Annoying as this is, the greater tragedy is that the film’s lovingly crafted animation has been wasted on this wafer-thin non-script. The meticulous sculpture, molding, costume and hair design, scene painting and set dressing are beautifully orchestrated by Rosa Tran and the animation team at Starburns Industries. Tran is a veteran of animated Adult Swim shows such as Titan Maximum, Moral Orel and Robot Chicken; Starburns won an Emmy for a stop-motion animated episode of TV’s Community, titled “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”

No question: Anomalisa looks terrific, and it’s inventively lensed by cinematographer Joe Passarelli. Carter Burwell’s alternately poignant and unsettling score gets credit for the film’s minor bursts of emotional juice; it’s not as if Kaufman’s script delivers any.

Anomalisa actually began life as a 2005 stage production for Burwell’s Theater of a New Ear project; the characters were voiced, then as now, by Thewlis, Leigh and Noonan. I can only assume it worked better as a live theatrical experience, because this film — co-directed by Kaufman and animation director/producer Duke Johnson — is a mess.

An at-times luxuriously striking mess, but a mess nonetheless.

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