It’s quite a rarity for me to go and see an animated film which doesn’t have the reassurance of a Pixar seal of approval, but when you throw the manic imagination of Charley Kauffman into the mix then consider me sold. Kaufman has been deafeningly silent for the past seven years, not being the most commercial of prospects dues to his head-scratching imaginative labyrinths I think we can consider him another casualty of the studios maneuvering to pre-marketed media product franchises, becoming less likely to take a chance on a surface uncommercial prospect even at a cost of $10 or $15 million bucks. Despite the animated mask Anomolisa cleaves closer to the neurosis of a Woody Allen picture, with a central surrogate adrift admidst the turmoil of modern life, desperately searching for purchase and affection in a world of isolation and alientation. The USP of this film however is the medium also being the message, the strange attraction of Anomolisa residing in an exemplar display of stop-motion animation, the snail’s pace process of imperceptibly moving mannequins a millimetre at a time and photographing individual frames over months and years of production. The project originated as a theatre piece for the Carter Burwell curated Theatre of the New Ear a decade ago, a festival of sound plays performed by actors to soundtracks on stage, freed of the usual theatrical trappings. A subsequent Kick-Starter campaign led Kauffman to animator Duke Johnson’s door, a collaboration which promisingly led them both to the Kodak theatre for last month’s Academy Awards ceremony, although they lost out to Pixar’s brilliant Inside Out. Wiser critics than I could make some very clever connections between both film’s internal monologues sprouting from their confused protagonists heads, but this is every much an adult take in the similar medium, dealing with weighty themes of modern relationships, the fractures in human interactions and puppet cunnilingus – you don’t tend to get that in Disney movies…..
Anomolisa is roughly twenty-four hours in the life of Michael Stone, a popular motivational author and academic in the world of customer service – an initial irony as Michael seems disconnected from everyone around him. Framed through his polite but slightly despairing Mancunian burr (voiced by David Thewlis) Michael is visiting Cincinnati to attend a conference, married with a young son and devoted wife his marital status doesn’t deter him from calling up and old flame in some desperate attempt to rekindle a bygone tryst that he cruelly walked out on a decade ago. Rejected and fuelled by a couple to many martini’s Michael alights upon two fellow conference attendees, one of whom he takes a similar shine to, voiced with a husky uncertainty by Jennifer Jason Leigh in one of only three voice artists on the feature. The third is Tom Noonan who plays all the other aural parts in the film, male and female, young and old, in a specific aesthetic decision which quite brilliantly coalesces as the films narrative slowly begins to form around Michael’s precarious psyche.
I think my tolerance for middle-aged, middle-class, first-world ennui officially passed its sell-by date with Anomolisa, and I say that as someone whom is of the same ennui afflicted, middle-class middle-aged privilege class. Although it has its amusing moments and there are flashes of Kauffman’s imaginative genius the overall effect is a deeply selfish narcissist indulging in rather pathetic and destructive behaviour – in that sense the film has echoes of Sideways from a few years ago which also appealed to a certain generation of film critics who could examine their own intellectual and intimate lives and find the results perplexing – as tellingly this film was voted #11 in last years ‘best-of’ Sight & Sound list. I’m sure defenders would respond that the film is being honest and doing justice to the characters by not making them paragons of virtue and realistically portraying their fundamental flaws, but Kaufman’s made a career out of this oblique reaction to the modern human condition and what seemed empathic and understandable in Adaptation and Synedoche is almost repulsive here. Even the characterisation of Lisa, the anomaly among the other identical voice artists whose name provokes the title is a rather strange take on the fairer sex, a mousy, withdrawn but believable character that the film then diverts by giving her a trite facial disfigurement – it’s a faintly insulting proposition for the character and the audience. The already infamous sex scene is as clumsy and slightly embarrassing to see as you’d imagine, nevertheless in a rather tender and touching way, a stark contrast to that other ‘classic’ scene of puppet copulation from Team America: World Police. Also in the positive metric is framing the other characters in the film with the same masquerade mask and powered by Tom Noonan’s voice is a theatrical stroke of brilliance, an embodiment of never knowing anyone behind the mask, the thousands of people we interact with on a daily basis as sentient automatons, with only the dulcet tomes of Jennifer Jason Leigh a burning beacon among the sea of conformity, a kindred spirit and possible oasis in a desert of unfulfiling and pre-programmed interactions.
It’s funny, when I started to write this I assumed it was going to be a capsule review but we appear to have more to say than I anticipated – that’s usually the sign of a film which might sit better with further and expanded contemplation. This concept is mirrored in the tempo and pace of the film, as scenes are expanded to near comical length in order to generate some sense of empathic intimacy, a hesitation and density to a hotel check-in or the perusal of a mini-bars contents which refracts Michael’s internal, uncertain monologue. That said I’m not sure we needed to spend ten minutes of restlessly prowling around his hotel suite, consulting room service and flipping through the TV schedule when we could be getting on with the story and spending more quality time with the animated avatars. The film is populated with lots of clever allusions and references which has got the Kauffman fan club twisted in paradoxical glee, among them naming Michael’s hotel of choice the Fregoli which seems to be an allusion to the Fregoli delusion. I’m probably sounding a little too critical as for the most part I did enjoy Anomolisa, the atypical bursts of surrealist flourish are very clever and cerebrally satisfying as is the particular strain of Kauffman’s humour of the absurd (it passes the half-dozen laugh test), but as I said I found it very difficult to get invested with such a neurotic narcissist, and a rather flat and unresolved conclusion had me shrugging scratching my head rather than petrified at the gaze into the abyss of Synecdoche. If you have the inclination you can thought-experiment the middle-aged Michael Stone with Thewlis’s earlier incantation of self-loathing intelligence in Mike Leigh’s Naked. There are links to an earlier phase of a self-centred psych assailed by the forces of modern life, the human animal driven by genetic forces to mate and marriage which doesn’t always sit well with a restless, prowling intellect and the grim impossibility of ever really knowing the purpose of existence – that might provoke an animated debate;