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Film Reviews

Kaufman-nequin: Anomalisa Reviewed
Patrick Gamble , March 11th, 2016 10:08

Patrick Gamble reviews writer and director Charlie Kaufman's latest film, his first attempt at animation

Charlie Kaufman’s script for Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, a film about a puppeteer who discovers a portal into John Malkovich’s mind, thrust him into the limelight when it was nominated for best screenplay at the Academy Awards. Ever since, be it the scripts he’s penned, or the films he’s directed, Kaufman’s work has been fascinated by the subjectivity of characters tormented by loneliness and depression. His latest, Anomalisa, makes for a fitting companion piece to Jonze’s surreal comedy, with puppets once again utilised as a symbol for human isolation, except this time its Kaufman ‘pulling the strings’. A study of the human mind, this stop-motion animation is a poignant story about alienation and the search for individualism in an environment that breeds conformity.

“Look for what is special in each individual.” This is the mantra of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), author of the self-help book ‘How May I Help You Help Them?’ He’s a middle-aged customer service guru, yet ironically Michael is a misanthropic and deeply cynical man who struggles to practice what he preaches. We’re introduced to him the night before he’s due to give a key note speech in Cincinnati on customer relations where he’ll expound empty platitudes like the importance of remembering to smile; after all, “It costs you nothing”. However, as the evening unfurls we’ll learn that Michael’s commitment to customer service has cost him quite a lot.

Anomalisa began life resembling a Radio show, premiering as a sound play for Carter Burwell’s Theatre of the New Ear series in 2005. Foley artists and musicians performed live on stage as the actors sat, reading their lines from a script; a technique intended to capture the disconnect between our inner and outer worlds. Kaufman decided to adapt the play, using animation to recreate this sense of detachment, and partnered with Duke Johnson, the animator best known for directing the stop-motion episode of TV show Community, to help bring his vision to life.

The film opens with Michael on an aeroplane. The experience of flying and the passing through of the transient ‘non-place’ of the airport thrusts the viewer into an immediate sense of instability and alienation. Landing in Cincinatti, Michael endures a forced conversation with his cab driver about Cincinnati’s world famous chilli and the city’s zoo, “its zoo sized”. By the time Michael reaches his hotel, The Fregoli, the checking-in process narrated with dreary conversations with the service staff, it’s apparent that everyone Michael has encountered has the same voice and identical physiognomy. The hotel’s name goes someway to explaining this, with Kaufman’s script Inspired by the delusional condition known as the Fregoli Syndrome, a disorder where the suffer sees everyone else as the same person. In Michael’s case, everyone has the same inanimate face and voice of Tom Noonan. It recalls the famous scene in Being John Malkovich, where Malkovich enters the portal into his own mind and finds himself in one of his own memories and can’t distinguish anyone's face from his own. It’s an unforgettable and disturbingly comic scene that is mirrored somewhat in Anomalisa’s quirky, yet sombre style.

The fascinating combination of Michael’s rare psychological disorder and his job as customer service guru suggests a sly examination of the inauthenticity of human interactions in a service driven culture, something beautifully accentuated by Kaufman’s decision to use stop motion animation. Animators are natural observers of human interaction, trained to replicate reality within an artificial representation of real life. The puppets used here are incredibly realistic, their skin richly textured and their bodies in proportion. Even their expressions, rendered striking with the use of 3D printing, only reveal themselves as false thanks to the mechanical seamlines that remain visible on each puppet’s face. The use of puppets also bestows Anomalisa with a sense of fragility and claustrophobia that beautifully echoes Michael’s suffering.

Kaufman envisions society as one totally inhibited by consumerism, and most scenes exhibit, in some way, the provision and delivery of goods and services. This is a world devoid of emotion, except for the relationship that blossoms between Michael and Lisa, a call centre worker in town for the conference he is due to speak at the next day. A scene in which Lisa serenades Michael with an accapella rendition Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun,’ first in English, then in Italian, is both tender and incredibly moving. However, although this love affair is genuinely stirring, the attainment of romantic love is rarely the remedy for what ails Kaufman’s characters and, as the pair discuss their future over a breakfast of scrambled eggs, the script delivers a sucker-punch, submerging the audience uncontrollably into the solipsism of Michael’s life and suggesting that deep down, each and every one of us is alone.

With Anomalisa Kaufman once again provides audiences with an elegant and entertaining film to better understand the enduring philosophical questions that plague human existence. In exchange for his films generally being indulgent, overly cryptic and self-reflexive, Kaufman has an uncanny knack for forcing audiences to engage with his themes in original, and highly engaging ways. This ostentatious puppet show may allude to the individual’s powerlessness to the external forces that guide them, yet there’s a surprising abundance of humanity at the heart of Anomalisa. Kaufman’s puppets never feel manipulated but are instead infused with remarkable emotion, as if animated from within and, although no solution is offered for Michael’s ailment, the film’s conclusion momentarily departs his doom-laden perspective to leave the audience with just enough optimism to question the root of this increasingly prevalent condition.