TIFF 2015 Review: Anomalisa

Anomalisa-Movie

The back of Michael Stone’s head in “Anomalisa”

I feel like Michael Stone. The protagonist in Anomalisa has a unique ailment – everyone he sees has the same face and speaks with the same voice. It’s called Fregoli syndrome, apparently. To him, the whole world is just one person. It’s frustrating, confusing, and depressing. But then there’s Lisa – and Stone can see her and hear her as an individual. She’s an anomaly. An Anoma-Lisa. This movie’s supposed to be an anomaly, but I can’t see it.

Utilizing puppets and stop-motion animation, the film takes place over a twenty-four hour period at the fictional Fregoli hotel in Cincinnati, where Michael Stone (David Thewlis) stays on the eve of giving a speech about customer service at a conference. The other characters he encounters are flat, lifeless, and speak in a perpetual monotone, all voiced by Tom Noonan. They all have the same face, and the purpose of using puppets is clear – their blank faces, abnormal movements, and indistinguishable bodies emulate, and emphasize, what it would be like to have this condition. But the use of puppets isn’t exactly necessary. A thematically similar scene in Being John Malkovich (also scripted by Charlie Kaufman) does the same thing, but was performed in live action with CGI. It would’ve been more effective if this film was in live action as well – the use of puppets distances the audience from the material and is a constant reminder of a much better puppet film –  yes, Team America: World Police.

I can’t figure out what’s so enjoyable or thought-provoking about this movie. The comedic material is tired and third-rate with obvious observations like: what’s the deal with keycards that never seem to work, why is hotel shower water always too hot or too cold, and which telephone button do I use to order room service?  The protagonist is an unlikeable twat who looks up an old girlfriend for a one-night stand, and when that doesn’t work, has one with Lisa instead. The “groundbreaking” puppet sex scene is a poor man’s retread of the sex scene in Team America. It’s a slice of life movie with characters you would never want to hang out with in real life, but have to suffer with through the film’s interminable running time of ninety minutes. There can be beauty in the mundanities of life, but Anomalisa doesn’t find it.

This was the most disappointing movie of TIFF for me. Charlie Kaufman is a brilliant screenwriter who has created three of my favourite films of all time. But Anomalisa doesn’t go any further than its high concept premise. Michael Stone is depressed because he can’t understand anyone else. I can’t understand what anyone else sees in this movie.

Grade: D

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2 Responses to TIFF 2015 Review: Anomalisa

  1. Steve Peterson says:

    Sadly I agree with much of this. The actual animation is beautifully done – so much subtlety and nuance. The voice work is also superb. However, the ‘story’ is highly unoriginal and the jokes are predictable. You also never really believe that these two people are really into each other. The ‘tenderness’ is so fake. My feeling is that people have been blown away by the astonishing achievement in animation… and there’s also more than a little pity for Kaufman and his ‘banishment’ for several years. I’d recommend seeing it though.

  2. Steven P says:

    Sadly, I would echo most of what’s been said here. The technical achievement by Duke Johnson and his animators is amazing – the animated dolls are capable of much subtlety and nuance. The voice work is also superb (although a more feminine voice than JJL’s would have been better for Lisa). The storyline, however, is hardly groundbreaking and most of the humour is old hat. I also cringe from films that are so heavily signposted and Kaufman does this in quite a few of his screenplays. Simply tagging a descriptor like ‘Fregoli syndrome’ onto a character to make his loathsome behaviour somehow more understandable/acceptable is lazy and in RL would not excuse anyone. Other weak points include the character development of Michael and Lisa – at no point did I ever believe that these people were really into each other. Kaufman just jumps them along to where he wants them to be. It’s the intricate animation work that leads us along in spite of all this and we can suspend our disbelief. There is so much else I could point out but …

    I was so looking forward to this film and feel strangely let down. I really hope that Kaufman can someday get back to the imagination and vigour of his earlier work. The accolades that this film has received elsewhere seem to be due in large part to the exquisite animation, secondly the voice work (especially Noonan). However, it offers no insight or new perspective into the loneliness and depression the that references. It’s novel but not original. It has very little to say – and spends a long time saying it.

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