Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, ANOMALISA is a delicate portrayal of the banalities and insecurities of what it is to be human, artfully illustrated by the masterful use of stop-motion animated puppetry which achieves a stunning dream-like realism. David Thewlis, evoking layers of melancholy in his soothing yet complex tone, voices Michael Stone, a renowned author of a self help book who is visiting Cincinnati to give a lecture on his work. Ironically Stone writes about the values of good customer service, yet he grapples with being able to sustain real human connections. The casual but steady pacing in the film is true to life, a study of existential crisis as a man struggles with the mundanity of every day life.
SPOILERS: During his visit, Stone encounters seemingly normal people and what appears to be ordinary interactions, however something is strange. Everyone looks & sounds the same; whether male, female, young or old, they all have the same unassuming face and voice. The entire supporting cast is portrayed by the criminally underused Tom Noonan, who manages to tackle the remarkable feat of subtly distinguishing between sexes & age while conquering the difficult challenge of not giving too much individuality to the characters. Because of Noonan's commendable vocal performance, everyone blends together in Stone's eyes and he awkwardly tries to navigate through his sea of isolation, leading him to arrange a meeting with an ex-girlfriend of eleven years, which only leaves him feeling more empty.
Michael's wife is distant, his son young and self-absorbed, and he just can't seem to move past the disappointment with life and the longing for something more fulfilling. Looking in the mirror, his face begins to contort and in his confusion even partially falls off at one point, revealing his internal mechanics. It's a visual metaphor of his overwhelming inability to feel real, like he's not an actual person who's alive. With a lost sense of self and in disoriented desperation, Stone suddenly hears a voice, a new voice, and runs through the hotel halls banging on doors in an attempt to find this person.
Enter Lisa. Marvelously understated yet with a simple beauty, she is in town to hear Stone's customer service seminar, and she's everything he's been looking for in this monotonous world. Although timid and too aware of her flaws, she is a breath of fresh air for Stone. Voiced by the fantastic Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lisa's the only one different than everyone else. Her voice is warm, comforting and unique , an escape from the otherwise indistinguishable drone of life. Lisa invigorates his soul and they share a lovely evening together with a vividly candid sex scene that captures the sometimes sweet awkwardness of initial intimacy. It almost makes you forget the film is animated.
Although Lisa and Michael share a deep closeness for the night, it is a short lived liberation from his inability to relate to another person. The next morning, Stone proposes that he leave his wife & son and that he and Lisa spend the rest of their lives together. Yet almost immediately, Stone starts to nit pick Lisa's foibles over breakfast and it becomes apparent that his desires won't be quenched by anyone. Leigh''s voice melds with Noonan's; Lisa's face blends in with the face of everyone else, and she no longer seems so different. As Stone states earlier in the film, "they're all one person!". Cleverly disguised in the name of the hotel where Stone is staying, The Al Fregoli, we see direct reference to a particular mental disorder called The Fregoli delusion, "or the delusion of doubles, which is a rare disorder in which a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise. The syndrome is often of a paranoid nature, with the delusional person believing themselves persecuted by the person they believe is in disguise." This literally explains the reason why Michael Stone sees and hears all people the same way, symbolically mirroring his emotional handicap simultaneously.
Dejected, Stone flails in his conference speech and makes his way back home. Once there, it is clear that nothing will relieve him of his pain as he is incapable of distinguishing not just strangers, but any of the people in his life. Although for Stone it ends on a somber note, the last moment of the film concludes with a sweet reflection from Lisa as she drives back home. ANOMALISA is a surprisingly touching & tender examination of human angst and dissatisfaction, not shying away from the same emotional themes present in the rest of Kaufman's works. The fascinating look & design is rich in both its colors and textures, so convincingly depicting real life in its nuances that it pushes the boundaries of animated puppetry in a surreal yet grounded, realistic way. Needless to say, ANOMALISA should be revered as one of the best, most impactful animated films of the century.
Watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DT6QJaS2a-U
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