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Film Review: 'Anomalisa'

Brian Welk |
December 30, 2015 | 12:15 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

"Anomalisa" is a comedy-drama for adults (Paramount Pictures).
"Anomalisa" is a comedy-drama for adults (Paramount Pictures).
“Anomalisa” is a combination of the word “anomaly” and the name of one of this film’s main characters, Lisa. Inside the head of Michael Stone, Lisa has the one voice that sounds different from everyone else in the world he speaks to. And yet Lisa’s not an anomaly just because of her voice. She’s klutzy and nervous, bubbly and nerdy, insecure and delicate, and such a beautiful individual.

Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa” is an anomaly in its own right. Though entirely stop-motion animated, and though the entire voice cast of dozens of characters is made up of only three actors, “Anomalisa” is Kaufman’s most grounded, least fantastical and down to Earth film. It’s a touching portrait of loneliness that, because of the animation looks notably artificial, but feels all the more real for it. 

Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is an author and expert on customer service come to give a lecture in Cincinnati. On the plane and in the cab he speaks to men who both have the same voice, that of Tom Noonan. When he reads a letter from a former lover, her face materializes in front of him, but she sounds the same as well. Even when he puts on headphones, the classical music aria he hears is a harmony of, who else? 

Noonan’s voice is perfectly generic, and yet increasingly Noonan’s voice finds its own range and tenderness not just made to be a punch line. The way he lingers on the small talk of the ingredients in a room service salad or describing the niceties of the Cincinnati Zoo show him as a frustratingly polite presence in the world, but never annoying or grating.

At first it seems as though Noonan’s voice is a function of how Americans operate in Kaufman and Co-Director Duke Johnson’s universe. Michael has a British accent that sets him apart, but we come to see Stone as a depressed individual trying to escape past infidelities and demons. He’s the only one who hears the world in this way. We see Michael clambering out of his hotel shower, pitifully dripping in the nude and then wiping away a spot on a foggy bathroom mirror. He’s lost in a haze. 

Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) though is different. She has a streak of red in her brown hair and a scar on her left eye, but above all she has the voice of someone else. “I don’t know what yet, but all I know is that you’re extraordinary,” Michael says to her. She sings the lyrics to “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” “I want to be the one who walks in the sun,” and we can hear the yearning in her voice.

All these devastatingly human touches feel amplified in this world that’s made to be artificial, in which we see the seams on the clay figurines’ faces. Kaufman’s choice to animate the film is a practical one to accommodate Noonan’s voiceover, but it serves a more symbolic purpose in how we pay more attention to the details that make “Anomalisa” relatable and personal. Kaufman and Johnson manage remarkable long takes through doors and windows, and they make us endure a sex scene that feels as intimate as anything this year. 

“What is it to be human, to ache and to be alive,” Michael asks in his lecture. He’s fated to see the world in this way, and he finds no one to talk to because everyone to him is the same. But he answers his own question: “Find what is special about each individual.” “Anomalisa” uses its animated style and its story to call greater attention to those anomalies, and we discover more deeply what it is to feel alive. 

Final Rating: 4 stars.   

"Anomalisa" opens Dec. 30. Watch the trailer below.

Reach Staff Reporter Brian Welk here.



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