Catching up on some of the early 2016 UK releases, Lee checks out the Oscar-nominated animated film from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson; Anomalisa.
A preliminary caution should always come with Kaufman films, as our expectations are yet to adapt wholly to being dulled by even his slightest efforts. To the uninitiated, it’s hard to tell whether Anomalisa makes for a good introduction because it’s genuinely a good film with lots of Kaufmanisms, a good introduction because it’s not his best and therefore will make his great work look greater by comparison, or a bad introduction for the inverse of the above. If forced to choose, stick with what we know and enjoy Being John Malkovich in all its bizarre, revelatory brilliance before sinking in to his superior follow-ups.
Surface-praise forward: told in stop-motion animated form with highly articulate puppets, as a filmmaking experiment, it’s a groundbreaker. The animation is incredible, with creative but grounded designs bringing a uniqueness to every character without forcibly demanding your brain take note, and a level of expression simply unseen in puppetry to this point. Character expressions are often quite nuanced, and little flicks and trembles are captured so perfectly in their movements they can quite often put real actors to shame. It’s a marvel, plain and simple, and will do wonders for those looking to draw comparisons to the character study they help present. Segue.
As an introspective look at loneliness, or at least perceived loneliness, and as a character study of its central protagonist Michael, the narrative has its moments. While a cynical and melodramatic manifestation of that longing some may experience for someone or something to take them away from the life they’ve grown uncomfortably comfortable within, there is definitely something here that, by movie’s end, can register with pretty much anyone.
Despite what surface impressions might suggest, it’s not intended to be read as “everyone grows so boring – I just want to meet different people sometimes”; beneath its generally unlikable protagonist is a desire to explore, on some level, that very human condition of malaise that can strike at any point in life. It’s identity crisis more than mid-life crisis, and at times it can be surprisingly frank and succinct in its portrayal.
The film stumbles on a number of fronts, however. The film teases the audience with a more visual representation of this discomfort, with the edging off of the character’s face, and it feels like following this narrative could have really added something to the story but, for whatever reason, we never go far enough.
And if a defence of a character study that focuses on an unlikeable protagonist is that, despite not rooting for the protagonist we may come to understand a little about what makes this particular person tick, I feel we may not go far enough or gleam enough in our short time with him. Instead, we spend more time capturing the film’s off-beat sense of humour, which sometimes lands but often relies a little too heavily on, sigh, “Cringe humour”.
That and it does stray too far into the melodramatic, becoming something more of a caricature of this type of person and their problems which, admittedly, does play well with the fact he is being portrayed by a puppet, but when the experiment is not ‘people are like puppets’ but ‘some people are interchangeable to some people for certain reasons’, then the humanity on show is the film’s greatest asset and putting that humanity in the hands of a character who loses that spark of interest so quickly and then has a meltdown shortly after, the problem seems less human by association. Perhaps this is just the natural conclusion of the character study; I would argue it’s more the natural conclusion of a screenplay.
Largely speaking, Anomalisa isn’t for anyone, which is par for the course when it comes to Kaufman’s work to date. Fans will like it, (I certainly did) but most will abstain from loving it. There’s plenty to analyse here, and as always, it’ll make for a film student’s wet dream. Roughly translated, that means “average consumer: beware.”