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Anomalisa - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A-
Acting: A-
Writing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-
Animation: A-

Nothing of note happens for a while in Anomalisa. It is occasionally funny from the very beginning, however, with the opening scene depicting Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) on his flight from Los Angeles to Cincinnati. His seat mate grabs his hand during landing as a reflect and is compelled to apologize for it. But this was already seen in the trailer, which makes the film look intriguing but hardly reveals the true genius behind its storytelling.

This is master screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's first stop-motion animated film, and his second stint at directing -- his first having been for the largely impenetrable but equally great Synecdoche, NY (2008). That was his most recent film before this one, in fact. This one he co-directed with Duke Johnson, who previously directed for television. And like any Kaufman film, this one is unlike any other you've seen before -- and stands alone even among his own body of work. There are vague similarities of storytelling devices with films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, but this time they are done with far greater insight and simplicity.

Because although we spend a lot of time experiencing the true mundanity of Michael Stone's life, we see soon enough how effective it is to start the movie this way. We follow him through the Cincinnati airport, and on his cab ride to the hotel. The cab driver chit chats with him about completely meaningless stuff, never truly listening to Michael's responses. He extols the virtues of his city. The zoo. Chili served on pasta. By the time Michael is actually checking in at the Frigoli Hotel, it's taken a few minutes to realize that every single character besides Michael is voiced by the same person -- Tom Noonan. This is a 64-year-old actor with plenty of credits, none of which would make you recognize him, which makes him perfectly cast for this part. He sounds neither young nor old; his voice is unremarkable aside from it being perfectly pleasant. He voices every other character around Michael, male or female, even his wife and young son on the phone. This takes some getting used to, but it doesn't take long.

There's a bit of an inside joke to the Frigoli Hotel: the "Fregoli delusion" is in fact a rare disorder in which someone thinks everyone else is actually the same person. This makes a perfect metaphor for Charlie Kaufman's singular brand of existential angst: Michael Stone is so wrapped up in his own loneliness that it veers into a sort of self-obsession; no one else registers as an individual. This is particularly ironic in a scene where Michael, in Cincinnati to give a talk about customer service, notes to his audience that every customer is an individual, with specific needs, and should be treated as such.

One might wonder why the decision was made to shoot this movie with stop-motion animation. If nothing else, it makes the conceit of "everyone else" (how Noonan is credited) having the same voice work better. It's an odd viewing experience at first, and then it's easy to overlook. Occasionally there are jarring reminders, such as Michael getting out of the shower: this movie doesn't just feature pudgy full-frontal male nudity; it features that using puppetry. It also features a sex scene, which is weirdly amazing. Using puppets and stop-motion animation, Kaufman and Johnson actually managed to produce one of the most realistically awkward, and even touching, sex scenes ever put on film. It's somewhat discombobulating, to see such naturalistic realism within the context of animation.

The voice work is a huge part of it. There's only one other voice performance besides those of David Thewlis (who, by the way, played Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter series) and Tom Noonan: Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose voice work is spectacular. She voices the character Lisa, of the title: she's the sole voice that cuts through the chatter of other voices that sound the same. Michael is in his hotel room -- an incredibly well-rendered one, by the way; it's exactly the same as countless hotel rooms we've all been in -- and he hears this voice out in the hallway. It calls to him, and why wouldn't it? it's the only voice that sounds different.

Michael, in a panic, actually rushes into his clothes and out into the hallway to bang on doors looking for the owner of this voice. Finally he finds two women sharing a room, there to see his talk, as a matter of fact. Lisa is with a friend, who is immediately by far more bold and flirty, but it's Lisa, immediately self-conscious and demure, who he has eyes for. By the time Michael has invited Lisa to his room for "a nightcap" after going out for drinks, they even talk about how Lisa is different to him. This is where the title of the film comes from.

We, as the audience, can tell immediately there's nothing particularly special about Lisa. She's like millions of other young women, if maybe possessing far less self-confidence than many of them. She can't believe Michael chose her over her friend. She has a scar on her face that she hides under her hair. When Michael tells her he thinks she's extraordinary, though, we can understand why: "I don't know why," he says. "It's just obvious to me that you are." Sometimes people cross our paths and they just hit us in a way that makes no rational sense. Is Lisa somehow actually the love of his life? Will her voice still be unique to Michael's mind by morning?

Before they go to bed, Michael is so enamored with Lisa's voice that he asks her to sing. She sings a verse of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." The script reportedly originally called for Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," but they couldn't secure the rights. That song fits Lisa's character, but nowhere near as well as "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." And the acapella performance of it that Jennifer Jason Leigh delivers is so full of longing and sincerity, it doesn't just make Michael cry. I was wiping away tears myself.

Anomalisa is just that affecting. It's deceptively simple, but its human insights are truly deep. It sneaks up on you. It's rare that a movie so odd on the surface could speak so directly to the human experience. It makes you think about how many people experience their lives the very same way both Michael and Lisa do, with yearning desires for connections that are perpetually unsustained. It's very sad: Charlie Kaufman has never been known for a particularly uplifting worldview in his work. And yet, there's something almost shockingly beautiful about it. You can't help but love these people. These characters. These puppets. They tap into something universal, and strike a nerve that can't easily be dismissed.

David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh are the only two people in the world -- for an evening -- in ANOMALISA.

Overall: A-
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