I’ve been reading a lot of rave reviews about the latest Charlie Kaufman flick, “Anomalisa” (2015) directed with Duke Johnson. As of writing, the film has a coveted 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.
Kaufman’s art is in capturing, particularly through his writing, the aesthetic of despair. In his films, characters fight the erasure of their memories, build hyper-controlled versions of their realities, struggle to see from others’ eyes — all to grasp at the threads of human connection that have always eluded them. They are heart-wrenching portraits expressed by numb and familiar protagonists.
“Anomalisa” captures some of the same despair at the mundane as Kaufman’s other work. For instance, the hotel which serves as the setting for most of the film is called The Fregoli, and most of the voice acting is performed by a single actor — affectively illustrating a particular paranoid delusion protagonist Michael Stone suffers from. But, I went to the theater looking for a spiritual successor to 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York” with its evolving circular heartache. And despite its brutal depictions, “Anomalisa” is not quite that film.
I could make excuses. “Anomalisa” was first a “sound play” written under a pseudonym (Kaufman’s been trying on a few other art forms since “Synecdoche”) and later became a successfully funded Kickstarter campaign. Sometimes in adaptation (no puns intended here), some part of the whole is inevitably lost. I haven’t seen/heard the play. I can’t attest to this. But there is missing at the heart of “Anomalisa” that fails to connect protagonist Michael Stone’s spiraling loneliness to a greater thematic idea.
Indeed, his paranoia was completely lost on some of the loudest moviegoers in my theater, who decided to proclaim “WELL HE’S JUST A NUT,” as soon as the credits rolled.
Meanwhile I stuffed the last of my popcorn down my throat and chewed slowly, saying nothing. Contemplating, because “Anomalisa” is a beautiful movie. Many have focused on its use of stop-motion puppetry, which was artfully done. The city was magically recreated in minuscule form. Because it allowed characters to take on literal other faces and voices, it was a stylistic choice that greatly added to the substance.
In fact, this is easily one of the better movies I saw in 2015. It still left me somewhat disappointed. It still made me wonder, after an incredibly slow first act, where the hell things were going. It’s still got me thinking two weeks later. And it’s still worth seeing, dear reader, if you haven’t yet.