The Film: 4.5/5
Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis) is a published author and motivational speaker who travels around the country delivering lectures on the subject of quality customer service. It may not sound like the most glamorous of vocations, but Stone’s philosophy of better serving the public by relating to and connecting with them as human beings has earned him a passionate fan base. He’s just having some trouble in his own life. Despite being married with a loving wife and a precocious son waiting for him at home, Michael is lonely and miserable. He feels that his seemingly ideal existence is deprived of real love. He’ll find it in, of all places, an upscale hotel in downtown Cincinnati, the latest stop on his joyless quest to spread the gospel of customer service across the U.S.
Welcome to Anomalisa, a lovingly-crafted and tender existential comedy-drama that evolved over the course of a decade from an imaginative theater production to a motion picture that followed the example of Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox in bringing its world to wondrous life using stop-motion animation. Partially funded by Kickstarter donations and Dino Stamatopoulos’ production company, Starburns Industries, the film was justifiably hailed as one of the best of 2015 despite failing to make much of an impact at the box office, and now it has come to Blu-ray where hopefully its appreciative audience can grow in the years to come.
Once he has arrived in Cincinnati, Stone can’t wait to get the hell out of there, calmly reassuring himself that he’s only there for one night. The hotel he’s staying at for the night, the Fregoli (a name that refers to a psychological disorder key to understanding some of the more interesting choices the narrative takes), is very accommodating to him at all times, but he is aching deep down to make a romantic connection during his brief visit to the city. After striking out with his old girlfriend Bella, whom he broke up with years earlier and is understandably still enraged by how it all went down, Michael encounters Lisa (voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh), a lovely but insecure woman who shares more common ground with them than either could have possibly anticipated.
What our two unlikely lovers also could not have anticipated were the strange forces apparently working to keep them from finding happiness together. Are these forces real, or are they merely a product of Michael’s frustrated and exhausted imagination? As it usually goes in the cinema of Charlie Kaufman, the answer is never simple, or entirely satisfying.
Who else but Kaufman, the wizardly screenwriter of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and writer-director of Synecdoche, New York, could make a stop-motion animated feature about ordinary individuals discovering true love under the most unusual of circumstances? In the course of his fascinating career in film and television, Kaufman, who co-directed Anomalisa with Duke Johnson (the stop-motion animation director at Starburns Industries who directed the classic “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” episode of Community), has brilliantly mastered the art of crafting imaginative comedic scenarios to weave brutally incisive and heartbreaking portraits of sympathetic losers wanting a little more out of life and willing to go to insane lengths to achieve it. His sterling body of work - which includes some of the most original and oddly profound comedies of our time - speaks for itself.
Anomalisa first came to life as a stage production Kaufman wrote that was accomplished with three actors, a live orchestra, and the presence of a Foley artist. When it became an animated feature, Kaufman retained the services of his three stars and the composer, Carter Burwell (as for the Foley artist, I’m not sure if he made the cut for the movie). The central role of Michael is played by the underrated British actor David Thewlis, a valuable performer in great films and an isle of sanity unto himself in lousy ones, and he is pure perfection as the emotionally and physically tired middle-aged hero of Kaufman and Johnson’s elegiac piece. But he is only half of the film’s soul-searching love connection, the second fully realized by the always welcome (and always terrific) Jennifer Jason Leigh is a searing work of vocal craftsmanship that exists at the opposite end of the acting spectrum from her other notable performance of 2015 – the vile outlaw Daisy Domergue in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
Their voices married to some marvelously realized animated characters (created through the use of 3D printers), Thewlis and Leigh are simply magic when they are onscreen together. Kaufman’s dialogue spares us the loopy wit of his finest scripts and instead concentrates on the intimacy of human interaction in Michael and Lisa’s conversations, the best of which takes place in Michael’s hotel room and gives Leigh a chance to do a hushed, haunting cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” that stirs the soul. It also leads to a graphic sex scene that is beautiful in its approach to realistically visualizing how the act of making love takes on something much more for the couple.
For much of the film’s first half, the task falls to Thewlis to hold the screen himself as his character navigates a series of awkward encounters with supporting characters who all share the same voice – that of Tom Noonan, appropriately credited as “Everyone else”. Thewlis nails his character’s sense of longing and lack of satisfaction with the course his life has taken, perhaps coming off as selfish at times but that makes perfect sense. Michael is only human and so is Lisa, the woman who captures his heart and vice versa. Leigh gives one of the finest performances of her career (and one of the best in an animated film period) as Lisa, initially star struck in Michael’s presence as a fan of his books and lectures, but as she slowly warms to him his own barriers break down and their interactions are natural and the chemistry is unmistakably poignant.
Called upon to accomplish a heroic task typically asked only of a member of Monty Python, Noonan provides his calm and unique voice to every other person in Anomalisa who isn’t Michael or Lisa. This creative decision only serves to add to the film’s disorienting atmosphere and make the viewer uncertain as to whether or not this is all happening on a recognizable plane of existence. To go into greater detail would spoil the pleasure of watching the story unfold for yourself because there is no such thing as a predictable Charlie Kaufman film.
The work by Anomalisa’s animation team is nothing short of astounding and oftentimes you might forget you’re even watching a stop-motion animated film because you’re too caught up in the character dynamics and some unusual third act narrative shifts. This is not a film for everyone, nor is it a film for most people or even half of most people. It seeks to challenge our perceptions about life, love, sex, aging, and the world around us and leave us enraptured and wanting more. It is quite the heady experience, one that I may not want to chance taking on for a long time. On second thought, I need to watch Anomalisa again. Like right now.
Anomalisa comes to Blu-ray from Paramount with a beautiful 1080p high-definition transfer that preserves the golden-hued, dreamlike cinematography of Joe Passarelli (Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole) with a welcome attention to the smaller details in the characters and sets that really can be noticed right off the bat in this resolution. Framed in the 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the crisp picture quality doesn’t look overly clean or smooth and is as good as can be expected given the painstaking effort that went into creating an artificial world realistically drab and uncomfortable enough to rival our own. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track impresses with clear dialogue, a lively and detailed sound effects mix that makes the world of the film come alive to your ears, and a discreet presentation of Carter Burwell’s downbeat music score. Additional French, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, an English descriptive audio track, and subtitle options in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese have also been included.
Proving that quality trumps quantity every time, the Anomalisa Blu-ray’s supplements selection might look pretty slim at the menu but delivers in terms of pure informative content. Leading the pack is “None of Them Are You: Crafting Anomalisa” (30 minutes), an insightful documentary featuring interviews with Kaufman, Johnson, Thewlis, Leigh, Noonan, producers Dino Stamatopoulos (Starburns!) and Dan Harmon), and more that cover the film’s journey from its origins as a stage production created for the “Theater of the New Ear” in 2005 to the decision to bring it to the screen through the majesty of stop-motion animation. “Intimacy in Miniature” (9 minutes) focuses on the creation of the sex scene and the dedication of the cast and crew to making it look and feel as authentic as possible. Finally, “The Sound of Unease” (6 minutes) is devoted to the film’s intricate sound design. A DVD copy containing a standard-definition transfer of Anomalisa and a code for a Digital HD download of the film have also been included.
Anomalisa is another innovative and perceptively humane drama from the mind of Charlie Kaufman, matched up superbly with some laudable voice acting performances from David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan and the finest stop-motion animation seen on film in years – ably overseen by co-director Duke Johnson. It’s truly one of the best films of last year and Paramount’s Blu-ray, with its sheer beauty of a high-definition transfer and terrific supplements, should help this sorely neglected minor masterpiece score a bigger audience. Highly recommended.