Film Review: Anomalisa

After only a few moments of contemplating Charlie Kaufman’s existential musings in Anomalisa do we all but forget that the characters inhabiting the screen are stop-motion animations. Such is the quality of the writing and miraculous attention to detail that an assembled cast of puppets can teach us as much, if not more, about the human condition as any flesh and blood performers. Seven years on from his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, new film Anomalisa sees the one and only Charlie Kaufman at his spellbinding, beguiling and perceptive best. Brought to life by the skills of Duke Johnson, the film’s co-director, and a team of animation specialists, it is also almost impossible to laud the technical accomplishments on show here highly enough.

From myriad corridors of the singularly brilliant mind that brought Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to bear, comes a story which deconstructs the life of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a man suffering from an acute but all too familiar mid-life crisis. Genius stroke number one has all but two characters in Anomalisa speaking with the same voice; that duty falls upon a wonderfully neutral, monotone Tom Noonan who embodies a taxi driver, hotel staff, an arguing couple, Michael’s wife and son, and countless others. Imbued with weary, cantankerous frustration by Thewlis who retains the caustic warmth of his Lancashire twang, Michael is a British expat living in Los Angeles who travels to Cincinnati for a conference. The keynote speaker, he is a minor celebrity in call centres across the nation having published a book on customer service productivity. A thinly disguised disdain for a world of boredom and drudgery where everyone sounds the same is ruptured by the melodious, anomalous tones of the eponymous Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

From here, Michael takes Lisa and her friend Emily (also Noonan) out for drinks, takes her back to his room, has her sing her favourite Cyndi Lauper song and then sleeps with her. It all may seem rather depraved and fleeting and on one level it is, Kaufman neither excusing nor championing the alcohol-induced adultery. However, there is a tenderness, innocence and charm to all that occurs which makes it difficult to entirely condemn it. Eyes look with all the yearning, longing and compassion of our own, a sex scene – shot largely in a striking long shot – retains the fumbling awkwardness of being out of practice but yet also a genuine intimacy. Is it possible that Michael be so enamoured of a woman by her voice alone? Can we really sympathise with a man having an affair?

Hungover, disoriented and spouting incoherent ramblings to himself as much as his audience, Michael asks, “What is it to be human, to be alive, to ache?” Kaufman, pulling the invisible strings from his own podium behind the scenes, asks the same questions of his audience. It is the mark of a truly thought-provoking piece of cinema that can have us completely stupefied by the most cliched of stories, belly laughing at the wryness of its observational humour, lamenting its transient emptiness and concerned by the ambiguity of a dangerous liaison at its heart. In choosing a medium that distances audience from onscreen subject Kaufman has drawn the two closer together, telling a universal human story with puppets. Brilliantly unusual, Anomalisa should be seen by all.

Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens

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