Geek Review: Anomalisa

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Charlie Kaufman may be one of the most imaginative and unique filmmakers working today.  His work sometimes just scratches the surface of sci-fi, but is more about the human existence, and how lonely that existence can be.  His work is often cerebral, quirky, and worth a trip.

His latest, Anomalisa, continues this streak.  A stop-motion animated feature that is most certainly not for children, the movie manages to work well without really slipping into the uncanny valley.  SPOILER-FREE review after the cut.

Inspirational speaker and writer Michael Stone is traveling to Cincinnati to deliver a speech and then fly home to Los Angeles.  Stone has a unique condition:  he cannot distinguish between different people’s voices.  Everyone sounds the same to him, including his wife and son back home, a former girlfriend, and a host of others.  Old movies, songs on his iPod, the radio in his taxi, men, women, children, everyone sounds the same to him.

Then he hears a new voice coming from a lonely young woman who came to hear him speak.

Casting helps here.  British actor David Thewlis voices Michael, while Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Lisa, or Anomalisa as Michael refers to her.  Every other character is voiced in the same flat tone by character actor Tom Noonan.  Kaufman’s script really brings home how bad Michael’s condition is by showing just how many voices he hears on a regular basis all speaking in the same voice.  It’s easy to see why Leigh’s Lisa, a shy but lively girl, would catch his attention so quickly, and why the two desperate people bond so quickly, on both sides of the equation.

The character design is rather lifelike, with animator Duke Johnson joining Kaufman as director.  The characters are just realistic enough with seams in their faces to ward off too much of the uncanny valley, that psychological condition that comes when things that aren’t human are created to look as human as possible.  The closer the creation is to realistic, ironically, the less realistic the character actually looks.  The animation here is beautiful, and makes the movie what it is.

Kaufman’s movies often end, at best, bittersweet.  The closest I think I’ve seen to a happy ending from his writing would probably be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a movie that ends with a couple deciding to continue dating anyway despite knowing full well the relationship will not work.  Anomalisa likewise appears to have a rather sad ending…until we get to the last word in the movie from Lisa, putting a different spin on things.  It’s not a happy ending, but it is a satisfying one.

Let’s give this movie nine out of ten full front naked puppets.  Yes, that happens, and yes, I told you this is not a movie for children.

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