Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity and Language
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Voices of: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Tom Noonan
Directed and written by Charlie Kaufman (the screenwriter of ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH), ANOMALISA is the first R-rated film to ever be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. Though I highly doubt it will win that prestigious award (the power of INSIDE OUT is simply too strong), it is very much a one-of-a-kind viewing experience. Told through painstakingly detailed stop-motion animation, the story begins with an amazing premise and then doesn’t do anything particularly remarkable with its plot. Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed this film, but I do feel that it’s being a tad overhyped at this point and isn’t near the high-points of what Kaufman has given us thus far.
Michael Stone is a self-help author who’s traveled to Cincinnati in order to give a speech at a customer service convention. During this very dreary evening, Michael has found himself pushed to his emotional limit. He’s become completely and utterly bored with life itself and the world in general. Everybody literally sounds the same and everything fails to arouse possible excitement or happiness out of the deeply depressed Michael. The course of the night changes when Michael meets Lisa. In a world where everybody has the same voice, Lisa is unique and sounds different. Michael becomes instantly stricken with her…but is it true love and what can possibly come from this blossoming relationship?
The first thing that needs to be praised to the cinematic heavens about ANOMALISA is its animation. While the screenplay might be underwhelming, the visuals are astounding. Lots of attention to detail was placed in everything from the fabrics on the clothes to the props and settings, even to each puppet’s anatomy (hence the reason for the R rating). The camera frequently follows characters in long-takes that I can only imagine were extremely difficult to pull off. One continuous shot has Michael going from the hotel lobby to the elevator to a hallway and then to his room. I have no idea how all of it was pulled off, but I guarantee it probably took a few days work (at the very least). A complicated dream sequence easily stands out as one of the best moments of the entire film. As a work of pure artistry, ANOMALISA can be fully enjoyed as something beautiful to gaze upon for 90 minutes. On a sheer technical level, the film is perfect. All of my complaints lie within the Kaufman’s script.
While ANOMALISA’s premise begins as a simple and creative set-up that has a lot of promise, the actual plot leaves something to be desired. Kaufman does a good job of putting the viewer into the depressed, deflated mindset of Michael as we hear Tom Noonan’s repeated voice in every character who isn’t our protagonist. This allows for a bit of comedy as Michael cannot tell who’s speaking over the phone and the audience cannot be sure of which characters are female until we get a long look at them (as Noonan’s deep, manly voice is coming from every direction). The chemistry between Michael (the always wonderful David Thewlis) and Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a bit hard to believe in spots as the two have a number of conversations that frequently shift from charming to awkward in a matter of seconds.
Kaufman keeps his film’s tone planted squarely in serious adult drama territory with brief comedic moments (a running joke about the Cincinnati zoo received some big laughs as well as a midnight stop to a toy store). To me, the story seemed simple to a fault. As a result, the pacing slightly drags as we see Michael struggling with his emotions and only get Lisa’s introduction about halfway into the film. The story also takes its time in setting up potential romance between the depressed self-help speaker and the nervous, unconfident Lisa. The story’s conclusion is sure to pack an emotional wallop for some people (as evidenced by mountains of praise being heaped upon it by friends and fellow critics), but I just wasn’t that affected by it. Ultimately, I think the plot’s takeaway message and how it hits you on a personal level will make or break this film for you. It simply was lacking for me and I hoped for a more emotional send-off.
While ANOMALISA is beautifully animated and I loved it strictly as a work of art, I wasn’t engaged in the story and wish that the ending had sent me off on the deep note that seemed to hit everyone else in the theater. I somewhat feel like ANOMALISA’s Michael Stone in my mixed reaction towards this film. Everybody around me seems to love it, while their voices mix together as one continuous compliment towards a movie that I felt was good, but not great. If you’re a fan of stop-motion animation, then you need to see this film for the impressive technical work. Maybe, it will also affect you as an adult R-rated drama. I walked away satisfied by the animation and disappointed in the plot.