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'Anomalisa' Captures Life's Mundane Stuggles, But Isn't Respecting Them

courtesy Paramount Pictures
David Thewlis voices Michael Stone and Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa Hesselman in the animated stop-motion film 'Anomalisa.'

Anomalisa looks like a movie that didn't quite get to where its makers had hoped.

It's a film that keeps you off balance. Nothing quite fits together. The characters are slightly too stiff. The faces have seams to make them appear constructed, like the actual figures used to make the stop-motion animated film. Except for Michael and Lisa, the two main characters, all the others have the same face, and the same voice.

It's disconcerting, and it emphasizes the sense that Michael and Lisa are the only two human beings in a world of automatons – at least maybe.

The two meet in a hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio and share a profound awkwardness. He searches for some level of companionship. She thinks of herself as unattractive and undesirable. They make tentative moves toward one another, filled with anxiety; they second-guess just about everything they say or do.

Co-director Charlie Kaufman – the mind behind screenplays for Adaptation, Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and both the writer and director of Synecdoche, New York – specializes in existential crises; his characters get caught by bizarre circumstances that make them and the audience wonder just what really exists.

Kaufman has a certain kind of sympathy for people stuck in situations they don't understand. In Anomalisa though, it's a limited sympathy that comes with a sense of superiority to the characters. It signals contempt for a middle class the film pictures as painfully unimaginative and out of the loop. It's there in Michael's dull-witted face and uninspired striped shirts.

Michael, voiced by David Thewlis, is a famous figure in Midwestern America for his work in customer relations, which the film indicates is something like being famous for being better at dullness than anyone else. Michael has written a book on the subject and is here in Cincinnati to give a speech in the hotel ballroom. Michael's fame so overwhelms Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that she blurts out that she and her friend came all the way from Akron to hear his presentation. You don't get the feeling that traveling from Akron to Cincinnati to attend a speech on customer relations is something that the cool people do.

The picture takes place for the most part in that unexceptional hotel – yet the movie gets this place in stunning detail. There's the big window that doesn't open, the triangular fold at the end of the toilet paper and the folded towels on a shelf. The long hallway with closed doors on each side goes on forever, and lonely travelers and locals sit and drink dully in the dreary lounge.

The animation is realistic enough that where it differs from real life – the pace of characters as they walk, the slow turning of heads, and the dullness of the eyes – makes you feel that this entire world is trapped in undulating amber. The characters and story feel disconnected and cast an eerie and almost threatening aspect to the scene.

Anomalisa certainly recognizes the despair of people stuck in work they hate, marriages without love, and comfortable but perfectly sterile hotels. But the movie has no respect for these characters. Not a one of them shows a spark of wit or indicates that they understand anything at all about their lives. When they go inside themselves, what shows up is as dull as their surfaces. It's as if they've committed a crime by being unhip and having no sense of irony.

So, in effect, it's a snobbish movie that turns out as tongue-tied as its characters. Those faces with their construction seams ought to fall apart under the strains on the characters. One does, but the movie lacks the nerve to allow any real breakdown or chaos.

On the other hand, it's the first time I've seen graphic sex between stop-motion animated figures.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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