Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: Anomalisa (2015)

Jesus, do I love stop-motion animation.  It has a haunting quality when it's done right, and haunting is a good way to describe Anomalisa.  The film lets the audience be confused for a reasonable amount of time before they can sort out the movie's stylistic oddities for themselves.  Those oddities are downright disorienting at first; I won't spoil it here for anyone who hasn't seen the film, but when I realized what was happening and, why it was happening, the film transformed from a slice-of-life love story to a deeply sad, psychological character study.

What is it to be alive?

Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), the film follows Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a middle-aged customer service expert visiting Cincinnati to promote his new book.  At his hotel, it's immediately clear that he has trouble connecting with other people.  He even attempts to hook up with his ex-wife, but their dinner date is a disaster.  Then he meets a woman named Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), someone who Michael feels a deep connection with simply by hearing her voice.  The two have an incredibly special night (one that the filmmakers don't shy away from when it comes to the details of intimacy), and Michael is sure he has found "the one."  But such things are only a fantasy, as he discovers that Lisa isn't the person he thought she was very soon after.

Sometimes there is no lesson. That's a lesson in itself.

The illusion of love and the insecurities that go along with it are a major theme in Anomalisa. Michael may be the protagonist, and it's quite easy to empathize with his frustration with the blandness and homogenization of the world.  However, Michael is also controlling and too demanding, making his dissatisfaction with his life partially his own fault.  He perceives the world as a dull, homogenized place full of phony and empty people.  This gives the use of stop-motion puppets (complete with obvious face-plate seams) added resonance because the world Michael lives in is literally all fake. There's even a brilliantly-executed dream sequence where Michael's face plate falls off and the audience can see the gears hiding right beneath his skin.

Look for what is special about each individual. Focus on that. 

Lisa herself is a lovely character.  She's such a sweet and innocuous woman, animated and voice acted with charm, insecurity, and awkwardness that's impossible to not find endearing.  Michael calls her an anomaly because when he hears her voice, it stands out against the paleness of the world.  He loves it so much that he asks her to talk. About what? Who cares?  He's infatuated by everything she is and everything he wants her to be.  Until he's suddenly not.  Is that really what love is?  Does it have to be?  I suppose it's up to the viewer to decide whether or not to side with Michael or not.  Can we ever be happy if we expect perfection out of people?  Of course not.  But Michael doesn't love Lisa because she's perfect; in fact, she hides a large scar over her eye with her hair due to her insecurity.  Michael is just far too aware of the phony world he lives in, and he thought he'd finally found someone he could share that feeling with.

Everyone's the same.

All of this is created through truly stunning animation, with character designs and fluid movements that have one toe in the uncanny valley and settings that are distinctly beautiful in how boring they are. The dream sequence is very unnerving and surreal, though it comes later than expected given Kaufman's sensibilities. If the film had two or even three moments like it, I wouldn't have complained.  Being the rare R-rated animated film for adults made for a US audience, there are quite a few visuals that may catch you off guard, especially when it comes to aforementioned intimate moment between Michael and Lisa.  And though I haven't mentioned him yet due to spoilers, Tom Noonan gives an absolutely terrific vocal performance.  Several in fact.

The zoo won't take up too much of your time... it's zoo-sized.

I have tremendous respect for the artists of Anomalisa, for they've created a very special film.  The script is wonderfully layered and profoundly sad, the animation and direction is incredible, and the voice acting is on point.  My favorite element of the movie has to be the artistic decision that I'm really struggling to hold back, and I refuse to reveal it because there was true joy in the discovery. That, my friend, is a rare treasure.  It's absolutely mind-blowing while also being simple, and even if the rest of the movie hadn't been very good, I'd still be recommending it. Thankfully, Anomalisa turns out to be a great movie, one that may not have the solution for loneliness, but it certainly knows the recipe.

9 creepy Japanese sex robots out of 10