Thursday, January 21, 2016


Michael and Lisa
(Spoilers below.)

Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, is a film that I respect but don't love.

I respect it because its ideas have been rigorously worked out in the script, cinematography, animation and soundtrack.  It's a film that is extremely clever in revealing the nature of the main character and uses animation in original ways.  My problem is that for all its excellence, it is a cold film.  Michael, the main character voiced by David Thewlis, is stuck in a depressed state and by the film's end, does not understand himself any better than he did at the start.  He's needy, presumptuous, impatient, selfish and ultimately clueless as to his own nature.  It was difficult for me to spend time with him or to care what happened to him.

Michael is an expert in customer service traveling to Cincinnati to give a talk at a conference.   By the time we learn this, we've seen him interact with many people in the hospitality industry, all of whom behave in ways that Michael would endorse.  However, he's so wrapped up in his own head that he can't appreciate the service he's being offered and is so distracted that he comes off as brusque. 

As the film progresses, it becomes clear that every character except for Michael has the voice of actor Tom Noonan and all have identical faces, whether they are male or female.  While Michael's speech to the conference emphasizes treating customers as individuals, he himself is incapable of seeing people that way.  The only person that looks and sounds different to him is Lisa, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is there for the conference and is damaged in her own way.

Lisa has a scarred face and crippling self esteem problems.  When Michael invites her to his room, she assumes that he would be happier with her friend.  After spending the night together, Michael wants to run away with her.  Her life is so empty that she agrees, but when they breakfast together, Michael finds flaws in her and her voice transforms into the the generic voice all the other characters have.  Michael can't accept people as they are, which is why all his relationships end with him unhappy and isolated.

At the end of the film, Michael returns home to his wife, child and a house full of guests, but the final image of Michael is him staring at a mechanical doll, unable to relate to any of the people around him.  By contrast, Lisa seems grateful for the attention she received and seems renewed by the tryst.

While this film looks like it could have been done in live action, stop motion is used to distance the characters from reality enough to make the audience aware of the difference.  The puppets are about five heads high, proportioned with slightly larger heads than real people.  There is no attempt to hide the seams on their faces that separate the parts that are replaced frame by frame. 

The animation successfully communicates the characters' emotional states.  That's what animation is supposed to do.  The facial and hand movements are subtle.  Michael and Lisa are individualized through their movement.  The acting avoids animation clichés and grounds the characters in understandable human emotions.

The direction, cinematography and art direction are impressive. Michael's hotel room and the corridor outside it successfully capture the generic look familiar to anyone who has stayed in a North American hotel.  The lighting of the characters and sets is exceptional.  While lighting in cgi has advanced tremendously, it still can't match the beauty of live action lighting.  The camera moves are fluid and generally unobtrusive until they need to add emphasis.  The sound effects bolster the reality of the world that the puppets move through.

For all of this film's accomplishments, it's difficult to do a story about a character who can't change and who ends up where he began.  The audience learns more about the character over the course of the film, but as the character is not very appealing, it's hard to engage with him.  The central character, while fully realized, is the film's weakest point.

While I don't care about the Academy Awards, this film and Inside Out are both nominated in the Best Animated Feature category and I suspect that one of them will win.   They are opposite in many respects.  One is cold and the other is warm.  This film is tightly structured while Inside Out is a bit of a mess.  I suspect that the Academy will go with the feel-good film, but there is no question that Anomalisa, in spite of its coldness, has taken animation in a new direction in terms of subject matter and technique.  It presents possibilities, something that Pixar hasn't done in years.  While I can't say I enjoyed watching this film, I'm glad that I saw it and glad that it exists.  Anomalisa is a direction worth pursuing.


Anonymous said...

Fantastically written. I couldn't quite put my finger on why I didn't enjoy it, but this post definitely sheds light on it's flaws.

Amir Avni said...

Overall I agree with your analysis, Mark.

I went to see the film because I'm a fan of it's producers, but I didn't enjoy it.

" it's difficult to do a story about a character who can't change and who ends up where he began." I'd replace the word "Difficult" with "unfair". If you take away an hour and 30 minutes of people's lives, you better entertain them or give them insight. I felt like I got neither from this movie. It uses stop motion to push the feeling of disorientation. If I don't enjoy it, I might as well learn something from it, about life, about human nature, but I didn't because the main character, as you said, ended up where he began.

I felt like "Inside Out" gave me both entertainment and insight. It's insight is the value of sadness. Depression can have a value too. While "Anomalisa" discusses depression, it gives no insight to it's value or what can be learned from it.

Anonymous said...

Seeing this movie with a friend, we both had the same thoughts you did, but we also thought that this movie wasn't really about Michael. Though we spend more time with him, it felt like in the end it was more about Lisa. She's the one who goes through a change. It's a weird structure.

We also spotted things in this movie that would have completely changed the story, if it weren't for one scene going against those clues. We're you able to notice them?