When most people think of an animated film, they usually think of children’s movies. The terms “animation” and “children” have been somewhat synonymous. Honestly, it isn’t wrong to believe that entirely – the vast majority of animated films are aimed at younger audiences, because children enjoy the colorful characters and quirky designs. However, in a world where animation is dominated by Disney and Pixar, it is refreshing to find an animated film aimed at adults. However, that is somewhat reductive of the very soul of Anomalisa, which is perhaps the most extraordinary film of the year.
Now a small bit of background on the talent behind this film – Charlie Kaufman is the genius behind three of the greatest screenplays of all time – Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and his Academy Award-winning screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. However, his finest moment came in 2008, when he made Synecdoche, New York, a small and quaint little experimental surrealist film that I consider to the best greatest film of the 21st century (so far, of course) – since then, Kaufman hasn’t really done much in the seven years since Synecdoche, New York, and I assume that is because he has been working on Anomalisa, an adaptation of his own stage play. It tells the story of Michael Stone, a motivational speaker in a loveless marriage, with a son he didn’t want. He is hung up on a previous girlfriend who he dumped years before, and on one of his trips to Cincinnati where he will be presenting to a group of individuals in customer service, he attempts to reconnect with his former girlfriend. When she does agree to meet him, he is somewhat overwhelmed and she rejects his advances. When all hope seems lost, he discovers another person, a shy and intimidated woman named Lisa, with whom he begins a brief but memorable romance. It is quite a simple and moving story in itself, but the fact that it is animated in itself proves its absolute brilliance.
Before I continue talking about the originality and how unique Anomalisa is, I first need to talk about the cast. This cast is composed of only three actors – the wonderful David Thewlis as Michael (in his best performance since Naked in 1993) is emotionally powerful as the conflicted and downtrodden man. His voice is truly unique, and he infuses this character with much needed heart and soul, but he is also capable to bringing the more acidic, cynical side of the character ti the surface. It is odd, because while watching this film, I felt like Kaufman designed this character with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role, considering how he brought out one of Hoffman’s greatest performances in Synecdoche, New York. The tics, the sarcasm and the cynicism seems to be something that Hoffman would’ve done perfectly, and I don’t have any definitive proof that Hoffman was considered, but it is clear to me that he might’ve been Kaufman’s first choice for the role, and considering how this film went into pre-production not long before Hoffman’s death, it is a curious idea that he might’ve been involved in some way. However, I digress. Jennifer Jason Leigh, who had a supporting role in Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, plays the female lead of this film. Lisa is a reluctant, mouse of a woman who is intimidated by the man who enters her life. She went to the city to hear him speak, but never once considered the fact that he might fall in love with her and attempt to leave his wife for her. Leigh is remarkably sensitive and very sweet, and it is impossible not to adore her here. Her haunting performance of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” stands as one of the greatest musical moments of the year in cinema. However, the most amusing part of this film is found in the final castmember, another of Kaufman’s collaborators from Synecdoche, New York, Tom Noonan. His credit at the end simply states that he plays “everyone else” – which he does. Every man, woman and child that isn’t Michael or Lisa is voiced by Noonan, who doesn’t even seem to try too hard to change his voice to play different characters. It is wonderfully avant-garde and truly indicative of Kaufman’s dedication to bringing an added element of absolute insanity and absurdity into his films. Some might see this as a cheap way to avoid hiring too many actors, but it is very clear that Kaufman just wanted to be, well…weird.
Anomalisa is quite possibly the most human film of the year – and that isn’t just my opinion, but that of myriads of others, and it has become a statement so synonymous with the film, a large part of the promotional campaigning for this film has called it just that. It is very similar to the fact that people will admit to crying the hardest at the end of Toy Story 3, or feeling some bizarre connection with the characters in Finding Nemo. Animation is truly an anomaly in itself, because it very often presents colorful and quirky characters, most of the time non-human, and we feel an emotional connection to them. However, Anomalisa takes this much further, and honestly doesn’t strive to ever be anything other than absolutely realistic. There is nothing in this film (other than one quite surreal moment), and this film could have easily been performed by a cast of real-life actors, but instead, it was painstakingly made with stop-animation, which goes to show how absolutely insane Charlie Kaufman is, which is wonderful.
However, what makes Anomalisa so human and real? There are so many factors. One of which is the story. It is a simple story – it is told over roughly 24 hours, and is about something truly essential to every individual life – relationships with others. Michael is a man who lives in a world where every voice sounds the same to him (a very subtle piece of philosophical comedy, because like I mentioned previously, Tom Noonan pretty much voices all the characters), so it is only fitting that the voice that breaks the wall of mundanity is not a particularly notable voice, but rather the person behind that wall. Kaufman has seemed to have built his entire career around telling stories of basic human relations in a very off-the-wall manner. Even his most zany moments in his films are characterized by the odd eye for detail in human relationships that Kaufman has shown throughout his career. It is fitting that a man who is supposedly an expert on customer service is a misanthropic, depressed man, and his final speech about seeing everyone as an individual is juxtaposed by his tendency to view the entirety of humanity as one homogeneous entity, and he is unable to distinguish one meaningless person from another…except for Lisa, who is an anomaly. She is, after all, Anomalisa…
I won’t mince words here – I could say that Anomalisa is one of the best films of the year (although I am anxiously awaiting Son of Saul before deciding on greatest films of the year), and it truly is one of the greatest achievements this year. It is truly very human and tells a realistic story, and proves that compelling filmmaking and a powerful story will allow your audience to connect with the material, which supersedes the need for real-life actors to interpret the story. It is zany, very funny and also will leave you an emotional wreck.
Anomalisa has played festival after festival all around the world, and received some amazing praise (which is wholeheartedly deserving), and now that it has entered cinematic release, hopefully more people can see this masterpiece. Go and see this film. Don’t walk, run! It is an absolute masterpiece, and Kaufman made a fantastic film that deserves to be seen over and over again. I will definitely be seeing Anomalisa many more times, because it is a transcendent, delicate and brilliant masterwork, and one that isn’t only a good film – it is an essential film. If there was a thing of beauty, it would most certainly be this film. An absolutely stunning, wonderful film, which I adored and I hope it will not fade into obscurity, because it is truly an amazing film. To quote the main character Michael, while talking to Lisa – “you are extraordinary, but I don’t know why yet, but it is obvious that you are” – a beautiful masterpiece, and a revolutionary way of seeing life, through a very unorthodox lens of filmmaking. Bravo, Mr. Kaufman. Bravo.