By Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (TNS)
Is it right to call a movie’s visual details sumptuous when they reflect the blase designs of bona fide daily life? If they precisely copy the bland pastel fabrics omnipresent in an ordinary hotel, and the wishy-washy gray that hot shower steam leaves on a bathroom mirror? What if they are handcrafted, near-perfect miniatures designed to draw us toward a protagonist exhausted by his pallid life and personality?
That’s the quality of attention that Anomalisa focuses on its story. It’s the latest from Charlie Kaufman, who has given us remarkable worldviews in Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. With the help of co-director Duke Johnson, it creates an amazing work with crossover appeal as adult drama, melancholy comedy and unexpected stop-motion animation.
At its center is Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a fifty-something consumer service guru visiting a Cincinnati convention to deliver a speech. He is depressed and socially awkward, despite his intelligence. He keeps people at arm’s length, whether it’s the fellow passenger who gives his hand a nervous squeeze as their plane roughly lands, or the talkative cabdriver who takes him downtown, endlessly recommending the city’s perfectly sized zoo and perfectly prepared chili.
The population of this monotonous Midwestern purgatory sounds uniform to him, because that is how he perceives everyone. Whether it’s a singer delivering an aria on his iPod, a phone call to his wife and son, or dull small talk with every Tom, Dick and Sally, they sound precisely the same through the admirably shaded vocal performance of Tom Noonan. Whatever their height or shape, they all have look-alike faces.
Michael passes between them like a man afraid of smothering from ennui, protecting himself by communicating hardly at all. Then his pessimism is overturned by Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a tender turn rivaling her bloody fireworks show in The Hateful Eight). She doesn’t sound or look like the rest. She isn’t sophisticated. She doesn’t understand parts of Michael’s book, even with a dictionary. But she doesn’t communicate in the insincere, upbeat monotone of everyone else. She’s different.
Following a few drinks at the hotel bar, he invites her to his room, where she sings “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in a cappella English and Italian. Suddenly drunken Michael falls in love, leading to a clumsy but honest and moving bedroom scene, with the lifelike puppets’ anatomically correct genitals in full view. The film, rated R, might be NC-17 if it was in live action, but it is not pandering for a moment.
The intimate scene hints that Michael might be moving out of his midlife breakdown.
Then again, a weird phone call summoning Michael to the hotel manager’s office and an attack of sexual panic that follows it could negate everything before as a meaningless extramarital fling. In the fresh light of the next morning, he seems to modify French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, silently implying that hell is other people at breakfast.
When the confused Michael delivers his productivity-boosting address to hundreds of fans, he veers helplessly off course. “What is it to be human?” he asks. “What is it to ache? What is it to be alive?” Though he has written a popular book on the idea of commitment to the service of others, it seems like a concept foreign to him.
Anomalisa not only renders its warts-and-all human portraits in a remarkable craft that is almost photorealist, it shows personalities with extraordinary precision, too. In its morose sort of genius, it is the well-off, self-absorbed, middle-aged man’s Inside Out.
3.5 out of 4 stars
Rating: R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language. In English and Italian.
©2016 Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: A scene from Anomalisa. (Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures/TNS)