Film review: Anomalisa

David Gritten / 09 March 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten is intrigued by a quirky stop-animation film for grown-ups.

It’s misleading to state the bald central fact about Anomalisa: that it’s a stop-motion animation film. In recent years, that definition has largely become the province of Aardman, purveyors of such cheerful, kid-friendly entertainments as Wallace & Gromit, and Shaun the Sheep. In terms of its tone and subject matter, Anomalisa could hardly be further removed.

Its animated characters are all recognisably human, but share certain characteristics – they’re a little foreshortened, with large heads, a stooping posture, and short limbs. Facially, they seem oddly alike. Look closer and you discern that their features are essentially interchangeable; we notice lines of a join across their noses and under their chins. It’s as if their faces can be clipped on and off – which, incidentally, is precisely how stop-motion animation is produced. 

This is spooky – though not half as spooky as the fact that with the exception of the two lead characters, everyone sounds the same. Anomalisa is the work of Charlie Kaufman, a hugely talented screenwriter with such titles as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to his credit. Kaufman likes to explore the unsettling, even surreal aspects of what it means to be alive; Anomalisa continues firmly within that tradition.

Its hero, though that may not be quite the right word, is Michael, an English author and speaker who is something of a legend to the customer-service industry. His inspirational book “How May I Help You Help Them?” is a key text for his fans. Michael (who is voiced by British actor David Thewlis in an anxious Mancunian drone) takers a business trip to the States, checks into a Cincinnati hotel named the Fregoli, where he is giving a lecture to a customer-service conference.

Michael seems dazed by the fact that everyone else sounds alike – a symptom, perhaps, of his depression.   (In a knowing Kaufmanesque touch, the fictional hotel is named after a rare syndrome called the Fregoli delusion; sufferers come to believe that all other people are actually just one person in a range of disguises.)

Dispiritingly, this is even true of Michael’s old girlfriend, now living in Cincinnati, who he contacts and arranges to meet for a drink in the hotel bar. But then he meets Lisa, one of two women friends who have flown in specifically to hear Michael’s speech. And Lisa talks like no-one else but herself (she is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh.). On this basis alone, Michael is smitten with her and the couple embark on a rapid affair.

They end up in bed, of course, and there’s a dilemma for the audience – whether to laugh out loud at two animated figures having explicit (if awkward and affectionate) stop-motion sex, or to let their jaws drop at the sheer implausibility of the scene.  

It’s not your typical animation film, then; while hugely original, it will not be to everyone’s taste. Anomalisa is a largely morose story – though it is surprisingly illuminated near the end by a lovely moment - Lisa artlessly singing the old Cyndi Lauper hit Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.) It feels like a ray of hope in a bleak world.

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