David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan
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…gently rolls over you…
Opening high up in the clouds to a hazy evening sky, Anomalisa’s world is filled at once with voices. Coming thick and fast from a multitude of people, half skewed thoughts and feelings penetrate the orange evening hues. Are we amongst the heavens? Charlie Kaufman is at the helm, however, eliminating any thoughts of a higher power. And sure enough, as the camera slowly draws back, we realise that the voices aren’t at all theological, but are rather those of the mundane everyman, passengers on a mid-east flight to Cincinnati.
Aboard this flight is Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a father, husband, and the bestselling author of How May I Help You Help Them? He’s an entirely different sort of artist, en route to speak at a sales convention at The Fregoli Hotel in Ohio. Stone is a man lost in the mundanity of his own existence. Anyone is everyone, and we’re all alike. Such is the casting of Anomalisa. Stone has a disposable currency of interactions – on board his flight, in his cab, at his hotel – and the voices sound strangely all alike. Simply because they are: in this stop-motion animation, men, women, and children are all voiced in an identical tone by the talented Tom Noonan (Synecdoche, New York). It’s only when Stone meets an unassuming baked goods sales rep, Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), that he sees the faint flickering of light in the cavernous Fregoli, and indeed his life.
In Plato’s Symposium, the ancient Greek myth was told of Zeus punishing and splitting an androgynous couple in their primeval state of bliss. To ensure that humanity would always honour the gods, he gave mankind intelligence to search for and find our lost half, to be restored to our natural state of bliss. Such are the concerns of Kaufman and his co-director, Duke Johnson (who directed Community’s stop-motion episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”). Stone is surrounded by the same voice, amongst the myriad of frequencies; he’s in search of finding that connection, his other half. He wants that bliss.
Although a film of quiet plenitudes, Anomalisa is full of detail, both in its script and stop-motion puppetry. Each character is brought to life using tiny puppets manipulated by pins to achieve a level of realness rarely seen in animated features. From the lifelike demeanours of glistening eyes and thick hands, to the jarringly real bodies of a naked middle aged man and woman, Anomalisa’s animators and cinematographer, Joe Passarelli (the stop-motion TV series, Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole), create a warts-and-all cinematic experience, accurately portraying Stone’s existential crisis and a certain ugliness in the world. Likewise, Kaufman’s screenplay is packed full of his trademark dark comedy, yet overflowing with honesty and humanistic warmth. For a film using puppets, the whole thing feels entirely real and natural. In a scene reminiscent of Adaptation’s Robert McKee (Brian Cox), Stone delivers a seminar to the sales reps, as he has a small moment of catharsis, delivered optimistically, yet unequivocally doomed. “Look for what is special about each individual, and focus on that.” As Stone breaks down on stage, the irony of his worldview is not lost.
As Stone’s journey becomes increasingly surreal and at times menacing, there slowly emerges a calming presence in the form of Lisa. Jennifer Jason Leigh provides a vocal fallibility to her character that is at once broken, but also borne of an inner strength. Thinking that an ex has knocked on his hotel room door, Stone, in a drunken and delirious state, begins knocking on hotel doors looking for her. When he stumbles into Lisa’s room, he regains some lucidity. Taking Lisa and her friend down to the bar for a drink, Stone soon thinks that he has found the connection that he’s been seeking. When asked to return to his room for a night cap, Lisa is completely taken off guard, repeatedly asking Stone if he is sure and why he hasn’t chosen her friend, because “everyone likes my friend more.” It’s within Stone’s hotel room that Lisa begins to show herself, singing to Stone in her wonderfully fractured voice.
The real beauty of Anomalisa lies therein. Subtly, it shifts its tone and focus from Stone to Lisa. While lesser films could remain wound around a character like Stone hoping to carve out some sort of saviour or redemption, Anomalisa, so rooted in logic and honesty, imperceptivity shifts its concerns to Lisa. The beautiful interactions between Stone and Lisa are to be savoured. While the story may not turn out entirely as one would hope, the conclusion drawn is entirely real and surprisingly tender. For a film that is so small in scale and so wistful, the reverberations of the experience are immense, no doubt due to the fully realised world that Stone and Lisa inhabit. As the poet William Blake once said, “To see a world in a grain of sand/And heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palms of your hand/And eternity in an hour.” Anomalisa gently rolls over you like a wave, enveloping you into its world and staying with you long after.