Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/04/15 12:19:01

"A nifty and unusual animated feature."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When I spent more time around various types of animation fandom, the use of actors for whom voice work was just a sideline was a big issue (and that was before DreamWorks had arrived on the scene!). I recalled those newsgroup rants because I'm not sure from watching "Anomalisa" whether it's an issue that filmmaker Charlie Kaufman overlooked or one he counted on in designing the film's central trick. Whichever the case may be, Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson have made an impressive film, possibly a great one if its technique hits one right.

Before what's going on is clear, things start simply enough - Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis) is arriving in Cincinnati to present a seminar for telephone customer-support staff based on his book. He deals with chatty people on the plane, in the cab, and at the hotel, and has his first drinks of the night when meeting up with an old girlfriend. That goes poorly, but he winds up meeting two women in town for the seminar, Emily and Lisa, later on. They are surprised when he asks Lisa back to his room, as Emily is more conventionally attractive even without the scar Lisa styles her hair to hide - but there's something about Lisa's voice (provided by Jenifer Jason Leigh) that Michael finds so enticing that he may be willing to leave his family.

It's hard to describe why that might be the case - or much about the movie at all - without giving away something that the filmmakers intend for the audience to catch themselves, and that's where the voice work comes in. It's not so much a problem with David Thewlis and Jenifer Jason Leigh - they both fit their characters like gloves. Thewlis's stern, impatient British accent becomes desperate and plaintive as he becomes more intoxicated, perfect depiction of authority concealing a shambles. Leigh is well-cast as the humble, sweet, probably excessively accommodating Lisa, perfectly nice but unworldly and below Michael's capabilities in enough areas that it's clear she's being taken advantage of.

(People who have not yet seen the film may wish to skip the next paragraph)

It's in the the voicing of the rest of the characters by Tom Noonan (amusingly credited as "Everyone Else") where the film gets a bit uneven. Noonan's voice is not distinctive enough to make this immediately obvious, but he varies accents and cadences enough early on in such a way that the impression is more comedic types than uniformity. Heck, when he voiced the ex-girlfriend, my initial impression was that Michael had a thing for trans women. It's a vocal performance (or set thereof) that makes the film seem indecisive for a while, like Kaufman and Johnson are trying to do this thing which actually does an excellent job of getting across how other people are a demanding blur to Michael very well, but either doesn't want the audience to realize what's up right away or wants to include nuance so that Michael doesn't seem like a complete egotistical monster, and these two impulses are in direct opposition until such time as the filmmakers decide to make the issue clear and run with it.

(And now, back to trying not to give major elements of the film away)

Though this isn't Kaufman's most direct dive into troubled minds - he did write Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, after all - it's still right in his wheelhouse and one of his most successfully-executed takes on the idea. There's a level at which Michael Stone is profoundly unsympathetic - his issues are those of a thorough egotist who finds dealing with people lacking that which makes him special unbearable at times, and many films would probably spend their time scolding him for this or creating an arbitrary breakthrough. Instead, when Kaufman puts him in situations where the audience can empathize with his irritation, he seldom over-reacts, and there turns out to be something really clever going on during his seminar: The joke is that it lurches between what sound like platitudes and darkly comic outbursts of "truth", but what makes the scene brilliant is that it's the platitudes that are important - that they're probably what Michael uses to be a functional human being and, as other characters bring up at various times, they work, even in a business as dehumanizing as providing customer service over the phone.

This is all conveyed via stop-motion animation. I suspect the decision to animate the film was done as a way to make the unusual vocal choices less obvious, and as a result, the style is unusually realistic compared to many films using similar techniques. The one-sixth-scale sets, by and large, look like things that could have been built or found for a live-action film without an issue, with some exceptionally fine fabric work, which is where many stop-motion films literally show seams. The motion is painstakingly smooth. The design of the characters does a few very obvious things to remind viewers that these characters are felt over an armature but also gives said viewer a way to overlook this, with a horizontal line on a puppet's head also scanning as eyeglasses, for example.

It's an impressive precision that straddles the line between bitter comedy and desperate hope as well as any of Kaufman's films as writer or director, and indeed better than most. Folks quicker on the uptake than I am will probably find it brilliant, and I certainly won't argue with them. If nothing else, it's a daring and adult animated film that also happens to be very entertaining, and those don't come around all that often.

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